Armed Forces Day

As I write, scattered gunfire intermittently breaks the silence. It’s 8 pm, and we’ve been uneasily listening to the sharp, ricocheting sounds of live ammunition for the past several hours, as security forces and protesters clash around the city. Today is Armed Forces Day, a national holiday that has assumed a new, more insidious meaning this year in the wake of the army-backed government’s slow consolidation of power. Today represented a swift resurgence of the slow-motion train wreck of the summer – protesters clashing with security forces, army opening fire on protesters, foreign media targeted and attacked, civil rights rescinded.

We don’t know much at this point, but we do know that at least 34 people died, and hundreds were injured. A journalist friend was beaten up and arrested while covering a protest, but was thankfully released earlier this evening. What is clear is that the Muslim Brotherhood has not disappeared and there’s enough popular anger simmering to keep the military and the government on their toes.

In between the helicopters and alarming sounds of live ammunition, we were drawn to our balcony in time to see protesters and bystanders fleeing down my street to escape whatever was happening on Sharea Tahrir or in Maydan al Galaa, a square next to the Nile and near a bridge that leads to downtown. In between the alarmed older men and odd masked protester run-walking down our street, I spotted a few remarkably nonplussed women talking on their cellphones, carrying shopping bags full of mundane essentials like toilet paper. In the midst of the chaos I felt a strange sense of camaraderie with my neighbors, who were all at their balconies as well, talking to spouses or silently watching the scattered parade of people below us pass by.

My flatmate is stuck in Heliopolis and in an attempt to distract ourselves, my husband and I have opened the Omar Khayyam wine (just barely drinkable when cold) and the last of our friend’s beers that he stored in the fridge. Things finally seem to be calming down, somewhat.  I have no intelligent thoughts to add about the horrendous loss of life today, only that it’s been a dark, dismal day for Egypt and I’m glad to see it come to an end.

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Protesters rerouted through Dokki because of the army’s violent dispersal near the Corniche

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An injured protester flees with the help of his friends. One of them calls his pursuers a dog.

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On cue, a neighborhood dog decides to make an appearance.

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Winds of Unrest

wallSeptember 19, 2013 (I wrote this a few weeks ago, finally got around to posting):

When I opened my heavy green balcony shutters this morning to let in the light, I  noticed that the hot, dry air that is a mix of pollution and Egypt’s summer heat had lifted a bit. The wind was stirring the trees and agitating the neighborhood stray dogs. I hoped (sort of hopelessly) that this meant a change in the weather was coming.

The political atmosphere has been calm here for the past few weeks – if you can call random arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members, political dissidents and journalists, an escalated assault on armed gunmen in the Sinai, an assassination attempt on the interior minister, several small protests and the detainment and consequent killing of a spy bird calm – but it goes without saying that there is much simmering below the surface.

Our curfew has been lifted so that it now begins at 12 pm and ends at 6 am on most nights, except for Fridays, notorious for protests; then we’re back to the familiar 7 pm curfew. I’ve started my classes again at the American University in Cairo campus in Zamalek and so have barely noticed the change in curfew. Work takes up almost every spare second.

That being said, it’s not difficult to notice that we still live in a city that feels for all the world like it is under military occupation. I was downtown with some friends this weekend in an area called Boursa, where hundreds of people sat outside in a maze of colorful plastic chairs, smoking cigarettes and shisha, drinking hot sweet tea and juice, playing on their phones and laughing hysterically at something their friend just said.  We joined in and took over a few tables and accepted a ladies’ offer of a handful of peanuts for a few guinea, an offer my husband and I would come to regret later when our stomachs fiercely rebelled.

While winding our way through the maze of people to another part of downtown, we stumbled across a tank situated in the front end of a square. I had the uncanny feeling of being on the set of a play, because inside the tank, one man sat manning a gigantic gun and staring, unblinking, at the people milling about, buying soft drinks and laughing.  Another soldier in fatigues stood nearby, talking and joking with passersby. The tank-man’s face was completely blank. I kept walking and we eventually passed the square filled with laughing people and a tank, but I looked back a few times.  The solider was still frozen at the helm of his gun, staring into nothingness.

In all honesty, I’m not sure how to confront the fact that the country is under military rule in everything but name these days. It’s an uncomfortable reality that everyone seems to be embracing as best they can, with a few exceptions. Twenty more people were arrested today for attempting to protest at metro stops. I continue to go to classes, watch the tanks warily, and return home before curfew.

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Curfew Days

Photo from theguardian.com

Photo from theguardian.com

Cairo under curfew is quiet. A warm, humid wind blows over the balcony. My neighbor’s sheets, left on the clothesline so long that I wonder if she’s fled the city, flutter above. Not a sound breaks the silence except the murmur of the security guard’s television at the large, mysterious villa next door. Almost everyone’s lights are out. It’s not yet 10 pm.

Over a week ago the military-appointed interim government placed the country under Emergency law and instituted a 7 pm curfew in response to last Wednesday’s bloodletting.  Egyptian security officers violently dispersed pro-Morsi protesters in squares across the city. By the time the tear gas cleared, over 600 people were dead. Protesters clashed with armed security forces in the following days and more people died, were shot at, shot back, were injured. Now a tenuous silence holds the city in its breathless grip.

The quiet is all the more outrageous because Cairo is a clattering, horn-honking, sandal-slapping city after dark, especially in the summer. This silence is unseemly, almost impolite. There are no kids setting off fireworks to rattle the nerves, no stray neighborhood dogs barking, nothing but the warm wind and the sheets stirring overhead.

The apartment grows claustrophobic from time to time, though we do leave, occasionally.  I picked up three papers from our local newspaper seller yesterday; he told me business was going well, thanks be to God. Everyone in Cairo seems to read the papers – not one, but two or three regularly. It makes me think print isn’t quite dead after all, a hopeful thought which is dampened a bit by the fact that the print papers all say the same thing these days.

When we stopped to have a sweet, dark tea with mint at our local coffee shop a few days ago, the garcon (the word for waiter here) brought me Al-Ahram. When I turned to stirring my tea and talking, he politely inquired, and then whisked the wrinkled pages away to another waiting customer. The manager, Ismail, a large man who occasionally sleeps behind the counter and likes to laugh and shout things at the waiters that make him seem important, told me that he was sickened by the television coverage of the Brotherhood protesters and the violence they were causing – a sentiment which seems completely counter-intuitive but which I’ve heard a lot recently. Instead, he leaves the large flat-screen television switched off, or watches talk shows about events in Iraq.

All the papers (and most news channels) repeat slightly different iterations of the same mantra. A small logo that proclaims “Egypt is fighting terrorism,” is emblazoned in the upper left-hand corner of Al-Ahram, as if you might forget from one page turn to the next. Every day a new member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership is arrested. One was on his way to Libya, dressed in women’s clothes, the media crows. The news seems to grow more oppressive and suffocating each day, not unlike the curfew.

A few nights ago we went to Al-Radwan, a restaurant on Dokki street with a few friends. We tend to see the same faces these days – there’s only a small group of the original fellows here in my program who haven’t fled the country. A few more are scheduled to return at the end of the month. At Al-Radwan, we stuffed ourselves with spiced rice, different kinds of meat, stuffed peppers and various salads, and watched the people in the street below slowly disappear as the curfew hour approached. Later, we sipped beers at our local hotel bar and tried to make small talk. It was evident that everyone had spent too much time inside with their own thoughts; all the beer in the world wasn’t going to fix the problem. People were jumpy, as well. Any loud noise was suspect. From the tenth floor roof, I could see what looked like a neighborhood watch committee (but may have just been a few young kids playing soccer) assembled in the street.

As the days go by, it seems like more and more people disappear. We meet others. We met a British journalist in the elevator at another rooftop bar the other day and we shared some shisha and popcorn and drinks with a few of his journalist friends, and listened to them swap stories. One had been detained for seven hours by the police while covering a protest; another had been citizen arrested twice, and watched army officers cut up his press card in front of him with a knife. I spent last week researching stories about business in Egypt during the political crisis, and asked my Arabic tutor yesterday if she thought the economy had been affected. “I don’t care about the economy at all,” she told me flatly. “I care that the army stops killing people.”

Her family was split, she said. Her mother supported the Ikhwan, her father the army. Her sisters were divided. One of her best friend’s husbands was at Rabaa, she told me (Rabaa al-Adawiya, one of the major pro-Morsi protest encampments until the army dissolved it last week), and they still didn’t know what had happened to him. “It’s terrible. We don’t know if he’s dead or alive. He may be in the morgue, or he may be in the trash somewhere,” she said, shaking her head.

I asked about the future. “There’s no – do you know this expression in colloquial Arabic?- no scent of hope. I don’t like the army and I don’t want Morsi. But this has to stop.”

“I heard the worst news today,” she added. “Chemical weapons in Syria. It’s terrible.” Terrible news travels quickly these days. In Egypt in particular, the military seems to be headed down the road to fascism at an alarming rate, and the majority of Egyptians (though not most of the people I’ve spoken with) are urging them on.

Slowly, however, things seem to be creeping toward normal. Yesterday was calm. Though the Anti-Coup alliance, the Brotherhood and other groups called for a “Day of Martyrs” march, the turnout was minimal and the security forces seemed relaxed, off their guard. The bloodshed has been horrible – there is no denying this. But if Egypt has anything on its side it is age and experience; the country has seen a revolution or two. I doubt the pundits and analysts predicting civil war. It’s not my country, of course. But I worry about everything my friends here say they have worked toward being thrown away.

Mona was equally discouraged, but despite her earlier comment, she gave me hope. “Yes, these days are worse than when Mubarak was in power. The fact that he’s being released is going to incite the people a great deal,” she told me, sipping her Nescafe thirstily. “However, it’s the government, the forces in power causing this division. The media right now. It’s not between the Egyptian people.”

“This is a real revolution,” she continued. “We are still in it.”

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Violence in the Squares

Today was a sad, horrendously violent day for Egypt. Over 100 people have been killed, hundreds more injured; the numbers are still climbing.

My husband and I woke to the sound of helicopters outside and soon learned that security forces were dispersing the thousands of Pro-Morsi protesters who were holed up in two major protest squares around the city – Rabaa Al Adawiyya and Nahda. By the looks of things, they weren’t going to go peacefully. Some protesters had sniper rifles, and suitcases of ammunition, the state news channels revealed. This seems plausible but the local TV news has been so biased lately against the Brotherhood that it’s difficult to trust anything you see anymore.  The army, we noticed, was using live ammunition. It was a bad combination and things were getting bloody, journalists were getting attacked, and there didn’t seem a way out of it.

After watching the news for a few hours and obsessively checking Twitter, we took a walk down to the edge of Cairo University near Maydan al Misaha and saw several tanks and armored vehicles parked behind barbed wire. Some young army officers told me that there were no sit-ins going on in the university, they were just stationed there for security reasons, and an older guy who seemed to be directing the special forces from his lawn chair (the special forces officers were dressed all in black, and were sporting what looked for all the world to be black bandannas) declined to talk to me but did try to shoo us away from the barbed wire. A nearby newspaper seller told me they had been set up there since the morning, but nothing was going on. “All the world is out today,” he said. pointing at the tanks. While every security force officer in the world did seem to be out, most regular people were not. We decided to take this as our cue to head back home and do some work at an air-conditioned restaurant on our block.

While working there, I joined the manager and the waiters in watching events play out on a bridge in Nasr City on a large, flat screen TV.  The manager, Ayman, told me that the Brotherhood were the ones causing all the violence, because they were armed. This seemed like poor logic, since the army has a good deal more weapons. He said he really, really hoped they would leave the squares soon.

Later, we heard about the action happening in Mohandiseen (a neighborhood not too far from us where protesters were attempting to establish a new sit-in and clashing with police and army forces) so we visited a friend who was working from home at a nearby building. From his vantage point on the eighth floor, we could hear what sounded like gun fire and loud, scraping metallic noises, but we really had no idea what we were hearing, which is a little disorienting. ElBaradei resigned, a state of emergency and curfew was announced, and we decided it was time to head home for the rest of the day.

On the way home we bought a few things and I spoke to some more vendors about the bloodshed. All of them, interestingly enough, espoused anti military views. This was a shift from the last few weeks, when almost everyone in our neighborhood seemed to be pro-military and anti-Ikhwan.

One man I spoke with was at the protests in Mohandiseen and said he had seen four protesters shot and killed, and that his ears were still ringing from all of the gunfire. Another man was selling candy and soft drinks and watching a television that he had hooked up outside of his shop; when I asked him what he thought of everything, he looked pained. “Shame,” he said. Shame on who – the army? the protesters? I asked. “The army,” he answered.

The images of all of the violence on TV are numbing after a while. I hope tomorrow is a day of mourning and respite.

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Eid al Fitr

cairoThis week much of Cairo celebrated Eid al Fitr – the feast, or holiday, if you like – that marks the definitive end of a long month of fasting. On a Saturday morning, the end of the long holiday weekend, Cairo is almost silent. There is no traffic, no horns honking, only the occasional sound of someone’s sandals flapping against the asphalt on the street below my balcony.

This silence is a little misleading, however. Thousands of pro-Morsi protesters still occupy squares and public spaces around the city and country, and the interim government recently declared their plans to clear the squares of these encampments. Two days ago a spokesperson for the Brotherhood called this Eid the ‘Eid of Victory’ as protesters held marches to demand Morsi’s reinstatement, and a few clashes occurred outside of the city. So far, not much else of consequence has happened, except for a lot of escalation of rhetoric on both sides.

The army remains a very visible presence on the streets of Cairo, and no one seems ambivalent about this fact. People that I’ve met alternately love the army and shower them with praise for sweeping out a much-hated president (every taxi driver I’ve spoken with and many small business owners on my street fall into this category) or hate the army and accuse them of perpetrating a coup and massacring citizens. (Security forces have opened fire on pro-Morsi protesters and killed over 130 people over the past few weeks.) I’ve also spoken with a few young, liberal-minded Egyptians who  wanted Morsi out of office, yet who also remember the various problems of SCAF rule two years ago all too clearly. They have no desire to return to military rule. This last group has organized under the name “the Third Square” (Maydan al Talat) but they don’t seem to have rallied significant numbers, at least as of yet. Tamarod, the campaign behind the massive protests on June 30, has denounced the Third Square movement and accused them of dividing the opposition.

Last week, I took a walk by Cairo University, not far from Maydan al Masaha. This was the site of one of the first incidents where the army and security forces opened fire on Brotherhood supporters, killing several people. On this particular day, four army trucks and three tanks were stationed around the square. Conscripts in fatigues were hanging out, sleeping on top of the trucks, looking exhausted. The square itself was barricaded off on one side with barbed wire. A young man with a gun slung on his back washed his hands in preparation for mid-day prayers.

Tanks are a common sight downtown as well; tooling around Cairo this weekend, we spotted one every couple of blocks. Young men and women took pictures of each other posing with soldiers. Yesterday near Al Azhar mosque, I saw several posters of general Sisi like this one, which reads (roughly) “The people of Egypt have taken up your call, Sisi – we stand together, against terrorism.” Terrorism means the Pro-Morsi protesters, which has disturbing connotations. It seems difficult – if not impossible – to form a fair and inclusive new government when one side is being denounced as terrorists.

sisiAll this aside, the giant, dusty machinery of Cairo grinds on, and the Eid holiday is progressing like any other Eid might. People are spending time with their families and friends – we walked among a large crowd picnicking in Al Azhar Park, which overlooks the mud-colored buildings of Islamic Cairo yesterday – and setting off fireworks. Downtown is the same bustling place it has always been, and Doqqi’s back streets are still filled with normal people leading their normal lives, albeit among more posters and graffiti. Men in tiny doorless tailor shops still do their ironing under fluorescent lights, women are still selling lemons and yelling at me to come and patronize their stands, and our local mango seller, a tall, bent-over man whose clothes imply that he comes from upper Egypt, still pauses to smoke shisha on the street curb and cultivate his world-weary gaze. Groups of local residents still gather at our local ahuwa to drink sludgy Turkish coffee and hot, sweet tea, read the papers, and watch hilarious and melodramatic Egyptian soap operas.

This is, I suppose, is what a country in political crisis looks like. Lots of talking, arguing, conjecturing, gossiping…and waiting.

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On Bread

Yesterday, I celebrated my anniversary. To mark the occasion, my husband and I had dinner at a Moroccan restaurant at a hotel on the Nile. Our visit to the hotel coincided with that of the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who had just flown in to engage in political talks about the ongoing situation in Egypt. I caught a glimpse of the minister as he delivered a few soft, solemn remarks in the lobby, surrounded by an entourage of civil servants and journalists.

Because of the political situation (and, perhaps, the absence of the tantalizing and over-priced Buddha Bar on account of Ramadan) the luxurious hotel and its sculpted pool were mostly empty. A few helicopters buzzed overhead while we chatted with some South Africans who were visiting on their way home from Malta.  As we finished our meal, we watched several boats of all sizes leaving tracks in the dark Nile water. Some were blaring sha’bi music and were decked out in blinking lights. From where we sat, we could make out the shapes of young couples holding hands as they stood on the prow and stared out into the darkness. While we were watching the flashy vessels and I was scooping dollops of harissa onto a square of pita bread, a family of five pulled up to the bank in a small motorboat. A young girl crept forward to the front of the boat and asked restaurant-goers for spare change.

Cairo, like every large city I’ve ever visited, is a very stratified place. This is not a shocking or unique observation, but one has to wonder in the midst of all of this talk of political crisis whether most of its citizens care who is in power. The word for the coarse bread that is one of the staples of the Egyptian diet is not خبز (bread) but  عيش (‘aysh) which is from the ِArabic root  “to live.” Witnessing the gas shortage over the last few months and the reaction in the streets, it seems like the question of access to ‘aysh and petrol must take precedence over any pretty words about political transitions and terrorism, revolutions and coups.

This is not to infer that the two are not linked. Everyone I’ve spoken to here is passionate about rights, whether it is the right for one’s vote to be heard or the right to demand a better and more democratic government, constitution, etc. The right to be able to buy bread necessarily underlines all. There is little of the affected apathy, or disillusionment and general exhaustion with the political process that one finds in the States. There is hope, but there are a lot of reasons to doubt this hope as well.

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meme circulating on Facebook

For example, the Egyptian Minister of the Interior announced yesterday that police were authorized to break up the the large, pro-Morsi protest camps in Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda squares. They also promised protesters a safe exit. However, this assurance of safety comes after weeks of statements from the army and the new powers that be decrying the pro Morsi protesters as deadly terrorists (ElBaradei is a notable exception). The Egyptian media has ramped up their incendiary rhetoric, calling for the eradication of terrorists (the protesters) from public spaces and squares over the past week. On Wednesday, Al Masry Al Youm announced that Al Qaeda had infiltrated Nahda Square.

All of this comes in the wake of more state violence. Last Saturday, security forces opened fire on groups of protesters – the second time in a few weeks – and killed over 80 people. The sanctioned use of live fire against protesters has left many Egyptians and non-Egyptian bystanders concerned and confused about the future.  No one seems particularly pleased: not the revolutionaries who took to the streets on June 30th, some of whom are now circulating Venn diagrams like this one to show that while they’re pro-revolution and anti-Morsi, they’re not necessarily pro-military; not the army, who is facing increasing international pressure for the carnage they created near Rabaa al-Adawiya and in other protests squares; and certainly not the Ikhwan supporters who were victims of the violence, and who just called for another million man march demanding that Morsi be reinstated.

In addition to this increase in violence and bellicose rhetoric, international actors are beginning to throw their weight around. Catherine Ashton, the EU Foreign Policy Head, met with Morsi last week and reported that he was in good health. (He’s still detained in an undisclosed location). In addition to the German foreign minister, a EU envoy arrived two days ago to urge the army to keep things peaceful through the weekend.

To return to the question of bread – for the government, the military, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, politics is their living. But for the rest, politics is a striving for a better life. If the politicians who are putting together the new government ignore this fact – the desire for basic rights at the heart of the protests – then they will find a far more serious problem on their hands in the future, and this latest revolutionary wave will be one of many.

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Million Man March

Earlier this week, the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, an alliance of groups that support the Muslim Brotherhood, called for a million-man march to protest against the army’s killing of 53 protesters and the deposed President Morsi’s detention. Thousands of other people are expected to come out to protest in favor of the new transitional government. On the eve before the rival protests, I took a taxi downtown around sunset. It was close to Iftar, when all those observing Ramadan were just sitting down for first meal of the day, so there were almost no cars or small buses on the road. As we crossed the bridge on Sharea Tahrir heading toward downtown from Maydan Al Galaa, I could see the Nile stretching out across Cairo, and the giant ship-restaurants just turning on their lights.

Picture taken on 6/27

Picture taken on 6/29

Picture taken on 6/27

Picture taken on 6/29

I also saw two huge gray tanks on the Zamalek side of the bridge that resembled nothing so much as small RVs. They were blocking a street that led to the Sofitel hotel. At least we know that wealthy Zamalek won’t be experiencing anything out of the ordinary in the coming days.

On our way to a Syrian restaurant, my neighbor and I took a short cut through Tahrir Square, as I hadn’t seen it in person since before the June 30 protests. Because everyone was breaking the fast, nothing much was going on. There was a giant stage with a banner and the word ‘freedom’ written across it, and several other signs with various revolutionary messages. I immediately noticed one sign that I’d seen circulating around the internet proclaiming support for the American people, and rejecting the Obama administration. Small groups of people were scattered everywhere, and some vendors were selling flags and signs and soft drinks.

Picture from الصفحة الرسمية لحركة الاشتراكيين الثوريين - مصر

Picture from الصفحة الرسمية لحركة الاشتراكيين الثوريين – مصر

The city center seemed somewhat relaxed. Lots of people were out smoking shisha, watching mousalsalat (soap operas) and cartoons at outdoor cafes, and drinking chai. Small groups of kids had somehow gotten their hands on a stockpile of fireworks, which they kept setting off in the street.

On the way home, our taxi driver wasn’t able to answer any questions about the ongoing gas crisis except to point at a few empty gas stations and say that there was no problem anymore, which seemed like questionable logic. He then blamed his inability to talk on his bloated stomach, from having eaten and drunk too much at Iftar.

Later that night, I headed to the airport and my new taxi driver railed about the strictness of the Brotherhood and their tremendous organizational capabilities. “If they want a protest to happen, they just have to make one phone call. One,” he said, gesturing with his hands. After the protests on Friday, he told me, Inshaallah, the Ikhwan would be done with their demonstrations. Of course, they should be included in the transitional government. That’s democracy. “But,” he added, “they refused!”

As I wrap this up, it’s 12:45 pm, and the muezzin at our mosque downstairs is giving a rambling Ramadan sermon. There are less people than normal assembled on the prayer mats in the street and small side-yard below. They are all headed to the protests.

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