Wednesday, November 30, 2011
You can see the tanks and barbed wire that blocked the building where I had my Arabic lessons.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
All of this week, Tahrir Square has been under civilian control and revolutionaries have shut down the streets around the square. Over the past few weeks, there have been camps set up, and there were attacks on protestors last week, but people came back stronger and more determined than ever, which has been very impressive. People are extremely angry at the failure of the government (the PM’s office and the military) to enact the promised and demanded changes, and by all accounts things have a much different, and more tense feel than they have for some time.
I want to explain, briefly, what civilian control of Tahrir Square means from my point of view. This week, when I arrived downtown (for my Arabic lesson) by Metro, as always, I exited onto the Square. This is a huge Metro station, probably the largest in the system. It includes a maze of undergrounds tunnels and, I am guessing, between 10 and 12 street exits. So, as I approach the street exit, there is a group of young revolutionaries who are checking ids and bags and patting people down. Men and women. Often I am struck by their youth—many teenagers. Always, I have been struck by their professionalism and politeness.
At the start of the week, I only had my university id, which I showed them. They preferred a passport, but were fine with what I had. They seriously searched my bag. And offered an extremely friendly, “Welcome.” Then I came up to the street where you can see hundreds of tents and thousands of people gathered around and a couple of stages. Last week, when there were tents and demonstrators in the Square, but the streets were still open, there were civilians directing traffic and providing security inside the Square. There are also checkpoints at all of the streets that lead to the square. It is, as I said, tense in many ways, but I am impressed by the efficiency and sophistication of such an extensive operation. Their goal is to keep out thugs and police (sometimes one and the same) to prevent attacks on protestors. There have been a few, but they have done their job and held the square. It is not clear what the police will do, which is, I believe, a cause of the tension.
Throughout this week, I was also struck by a relative normalcy on many of the streets around the Square. Many businesses were open and people were doing their thing. (KFC and Arby’s were closed; McDonald’s looked open; there was a cadre of street vendors there to fill the void.) The revolutionaries had blocked the Mugamma government building for several days, but I was really struck, in a good way, with the ability of the revolution to coexist with a certain normalcy. I am not sure if this makes sense, or if it somehow represents a failure in that the goal may be to create a certain abnormalcy. Certainly the activists have effectively disrupted things. The area of the city they control is really the epicenter of the city (and I think few cities have a single epicenter that would be the equivalent to Tahrir).
So why are people carrying on with their lives and business? Perhaps it is because a certain fear is gone. Perhaps it is replaced by a newfound fearlessness. Does this coexistence constitute a sort of tacit or passive support for the revolution, and if so is this a good thing? I like the way that it draws everyone in, whether willing, as in my case, or not, as in the case of my Arabic teacher for example.. (I am much more trusting than I am when uniformed people check me elsewhere.) Everyone needs to show id and have their bags checked. Or follow civilians directing traffic. In doing so, unavoidable though it may be, we are accepting the revolution. It may be Althusser’s idea of interpellated subjects (I should probably be reading his essays on ideology now!)... The conditions produce the subjects.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
As folks may have heard, there were major demonstrations last week after police attacked a gathering of families of the martyrs. Tahrir Square was retaken by demonstrators on Tuesday night into Wednesday. Since it received a good bit of media coverage (and I was not there), I won’t go into the details of what happened, but I am intrigued by a sidebar related to a big football scheduled for Wednesday.
On Wednesday night, there was slated a big football match between arch-rivals Ahly and Zamalek, with the season nearing the end. I can’t think of an appropriate comparison for folks in the US, but this is a huge rivalry and this was the first match between the two sides since the end of the revolution. Ahly was up a few points up in the standings with the season nearing the end, so Zamalek was in a tough position to catch up.
Relatively early in the day on Wednesday, it was announced on Reuters and elsewhere that the match was postponed. I understood why the authorities wished to cancel an event that had the potential to destabilize things further. But they changed course and it was announced that the match would be held Wednesday evening.
I was confused at first, but came to understand it through some conversations with friends. First, the background is that the ultras, militant groups of football fans, had organized in January and February to defend the revolution and, along with younger members of the Brotherhood, were on the frontlines. By all accounts, their role was heroic (and partly inspired by their own experiences of police brutality). There was some coverage of the ultras on CNN recently, so you can get some background. Frankly I myself had not fully appreciated their role though it has received some coverage.
On Wednesday morning, it looked like demonstrators, with the support of the football ultras, had control of Tahrir Square. If the match were cancelled, demonstrators would have probably stayed in the square on Wednesday and Thursday, and probably been joined by others on Friday. But with the match on, the ultras left the square (disappointing some activists).
This morning (Sunday), when I came downtown, there is a small encampment in Tahrir, but traffic looks to be flowing freely.
The match was a 2-2 tie (which amounts to a victory for league leaders Ahly).
Saturday, June 18, 2011
The water in Cairo is very heavily treated and chlorinated. There does not seem to be a problem of parasites and bacteria in the city water supply, but the result is not so tasty. It is probably not immediately dangerous to drink the water, but the consensus is that over time it may be unhealthy due to the high chlorination levels. (If the fading colors of our clothing are any indication of what our insides would look like, I would be concerned.) So since we moved here, we have been drinking mineral water.
First, we bought cases of large 1.5 liter bottles. Then, frustrated with all of the plastic we were consuming (even though disposed bottles are often reused by someone in the city), we upgraded to refillable 19 liter jugs which were less expensive and better for the environment.
We paid a little bit more than $2 for a bottle. At first, we operated it with a basic hand pump which never worked especially well.
Then we hit the jackpot. A friend who was leaving sold us a water cooler—office style—shown here.
This worked great—it was hot and cold
Over time, however, there is also concern about the mineral content in drinking water, also with regard to long-term cumulative effect. A few friends had installed filtration systems. We have a small shower-head filter that we to soften the water for bathing. When the plumber was here installing it, we talked about it, particularly with regard to an infant. The conversation shifted to drinking water, and he pointed out the mineral content, which was labeled on the water we were drinking. Many of the minerals are very hard for a baby to process (and possibly for an adult as well.)
So our latest, and perhaps final, move is a reverse osmosis five-stage water filtration system, connected to the faucet, which you can see here. It is quite impressive. And the water tastes great. One of the filters is visible, and you can see the color of it after a little bit more than two months of use. We are due for our first filter change in a couple weeks, so I will be interested to see what everything else looks like.
Over the past few months, there has been a lot written about security and safety in Cairo after the revolution, mostly as a result of the disappearance of the police (or their reduced numbers or their decreased effectiveness for a range of complicated reasons). Even the New York Times got into it about a month or two ago, and people feel insecure, mostly with good reason. In these situations, it is hard to distinguish fact from impression (people’s fear of crime, and the state’s response often has very little direct relationship to the actual crime rate), but things have changed here in a way that legitimately make many people feel unsafe. In our well-to-do neighborhood, the concerns are different than those in other, often more vulnerable, areas, but there are extremely legitimate concerns.
Very basically, under Mubarak, there was a corrupt and brutal police force. During the revolution, the police disappeared completely (and in many cases instigated violence and looting and other destabilizing things) and then gradually returned, in fits and starts. During the revolution, neighborhoods took it upon themselves to set up patrols and provide security, essentially civilians providing a necessary service that the state neglected to provide. This was all remarkably well organized, especially considering how rapidly communities were forced to organize (literally over the course of couple hours). Often civilians also took up traffic posts during rush hour.
Today, the police are not present at their previous level, and, for those who are on the streets, the kind of attitude that dominates many police departments is gone. It is no longer clear that they can behave with impunity, or are even the ones in control. For me, all of this came to the forefront in something that happened in New Maadi, near where we live, about two weeks after the end of the revolution, as police were slowly beginning to return to the streets.
In Algiers Square, a microbus driver was stopped by a police officer who was known in that area for harassing drivers. (At this point, I should add that my understanding of what happened is not very authoritative—it is compiled from what I remember reading in several newspapers at the time and online since, and from talking to people, so my understanding of the facts is limited.) One driver stood up to him, in a way that seems like it would not have happened before the revolution, and in an ensuing scuffle the cop shot the driver. Then, the crowd came to the driver’s aid and attacked the cop, beating him up pretty badly. The initial reports were that both were killed, though I don’t think that either one was. The crowd, led by other microbus drivers, burnt a few police vehicles in the area and even ran up on the cop’s home though they did not do anything (which I initially took as evidence of how this cop was familiar to people though I think they may have found his id card). This cop, it was also either known or learned, was the son of a well-known high-ranking officer. Eventually the military came into to rescue the police, who stayed away from all of Maadi for at least a week afterwards as I recall, which resulted in the cancellation of the rest of the public school week (or delayed its resumption at least). With the police gone, the youth directed traffic. Lots of ramifications in the short term.
In the long term, this seems to be one incident among many, but it looks like part of a very messy, and occasionally violent, transition from a system where the police act with impunity to a system where they are held accountable. Part of what is described throughout the city are examples of police becoming increasingly passive, unwilling to get involved as they do not know if they will have appropriate support, or if the people will turn against them. So they are much less effective. Yet, despite the chaos of what happened in New Maadi, it does seem to suggest the possibility of an alternate order that does have accountability built into it. And ultimately I think that is what people want and what people deserve—security with accountability. My sense is that the overwhelming majority of Cairenes want an increased effective police presence, without a return to the old regime. Accountability has to involve meaningful legal and other processes. (What about democratic elections of police officers by the communities they serve?) I also think the combination that emerged—citizen security, other private measures, a moderated police force—can achieve a certain kind of effective balance. Something that allows us to imagine a system other than one where all security is handled by the government. I certainly hope so.
In events like this one, a new dynamic is being formulated. The re-formation of security apparatus can result in its reformation, as everyone learns and understands the new roles that are expected of them. While I am not sure my optimism is warranted, I do believe that an effective system of accountable policing is being formulated (inevitably perhaps, through events like Algiers Square) and hopefully will take hold.
Friday, June 17, 2011
Since we have lived here (three years now), the street lights have not worked. Some of the individual buildings have lights and there are some stores at one end, but the lights on the lamp posts have not worked. Some of these lamp posts were taken down during the revolution for use as road blocks by people in the neighborhood to block cars from driving down our street. Since then, they have laid by the side of the road.
Now, people in the community have apparently gotten together and fixed them— rewired and remounted them without the government. And just a couple of days ago, they were working again* (presuming that they did work at some point in the past) for the first time in at least three years. Here is the view from our balcony.
Monday, June 13, 2011
Sunday, June 12, 2011
I have recently heard a bit of good news from colleagues at Cairo University, which is the largest in the country with 250,000 students (as I recall). This weekend, they just had their first democratic election of a Dean of the Faculty of Arts, with seven candidates running and extremely high turnout among the faculty and staff electorate. The new Dean is also the first woman to hold the position. Part of what intrigues and inspires me about this process is the way that, amid so much remaining tense in the streets and so many serious questions about the military rulers of the country and the future, that the “revolution” has taken greater hold throughout many spheres.
My initial inclination was to describe this as the way that democratic practices have transformed “civil society,” but I think that presumes the existence of “civil society” as such. The universities were administered by the government, operated through political pressures, and, perhaps most damagingly, surveyed and patrolled by state security. So what has happened is in many ways a two-step process (a ridiculous over simplification for sure). First, the university had to be civilianized (a process which began in some sense before the revolution with a court ruling evicting state security from campuses, though it has taken the revolution to see even a modicum of enforcement). And then, secondly, processes like this weekend’s elections are able to take place, thanks to the impressive and longstanding activism of so many faculty and students on the campuses. I think the results are both transformative and sustainable.
And I guess I think in some ways this may be what the revolution looks like—at least in part—the transformation of civil institutions in such ways. A similar electoral process took place at Ain Shams University earlier in the year, so there is reason to be encouraged. Such changes do not carry much weight in the international media, unfortunately, and things elsewhere in the city remain as unsettled as ever, but I do think this reminds us that, if we looks in the right place, there are reasons to be hopeful.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Blogging has slowed down, for all sorts of reasons. There is still a lot happening here, most of which I am not especially qualified to comment on beyond the kind of off-the-cuff observations that I often bristle at from others. I do have some pictures that I hope to post—of murals and things from the neighborhood—but that feels a bit pollyannaish right now. Soon, I promise.
A few weeks ago, I attended a conference in Alexandria with colleagues from other universities here about teaching language and literature after January 25. My topic was on “Teaching American Literature and Human Rights” which was nicely complemented by some colleagues who talked about their new translation of Thomas Jefferson’s writings, as something, like much of the American example, to be considered a valuable case study, rather than a model to be emulated. Jefferson demands critical engagement as he embodies so many contradictions as a literary and prophetic figure, representing the best and worst of the US tradition. I like the temperament of this approach to the US at this moment.
For my talk, I used Malcolm X’s insistence (repeated throughout the last years of his life as Manning Marable documents in his biography, which I just finished last week) on seeing the African American struggle as demanding the attention of the United Nations. Part of Malcolm’s argument was that this movement facilitates transnational dialogue and solidarity. What a wonderful way for me to think about teaching American literature in Egypt—what if we think about it as part of a “world” tradition, rather than a national one? What are the possibilities? Specifically, I talked about texts of slavery, incarceration (also always texts of freedom, as Toni Cade Bambara frequently reminded us), and internationalism. For me it is an exciting time to be teaching here since every text, even those I have taught a half-dozen times before is “new.”
The rest of the program was quite exciting because it dealt with everything from the institutional (a campaign by colleagues at another university for direct election of the Dean and other administrators) to the curricular (“The Revolutionary Texts Initiative” and a rhetorical analysis of Mubarak’s final speech) to the pedagogical (how do we implement democratic reforms in the classroom, and the importance of new forms of student-centered learning, which is still a radical idea here).
And perhaps the most encouraging thing for me was to hear the voices of students from several universities. This, for me, was such a thrill because it is a rarity for students to be afforded a voice in this forum. And their professors are listening to them with a new seriousness and attentiveness. The movement of the youth in Egypt during the past several months forces us, as professors, that not only takes into account the material changes that have taken place around us (and which we do, by consensus, support), but to fundamentally restructure academic meeting such as this. It is no longer the teachers talking and students listening. It is, instead, a more democratic process emerging. And I believe we are only scratching the surface of what is possible in this regards.
The specific presentations included analyses of January 25th slogans by linguistics students. Their work was impressively interdisciplinary in that it looked at the interactions of text and image on many of the posters that were seen in Tahrir Square. A colleague also shared a video of a “Democracy Graffiti Art Project” that she has undertaken with her students (who are featured in the video though they could not travel from Cairo to Alexandria for the conference). The restrictions of public expression, public space, and free speech at universities here has been so engrained that this project is really revolutionary in its own way. Large white pieces of paper are hung on the walls for students to write their thoughts. It is not policed or monitored, and has by all accounts been quite successful with students finding the smallest bit of free space to use, with more and more sheets of paper being added to the walls.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Friday, May 20, 2011
Sorry for sleeping on the blog. I do have some stories to tell, including one about an energizing conference I attended in Alexandria on the subject of teaching literature after January 25.
This evening, we were heading out during rush hour and waiting for a taxi. A car with a young couple, early twenties, pulled up beside us. I though they were asking for directions. No, they were offering us a ride. “Let us take you.” No, thank you, I replied. “Please,” they responded earnestly. I hope I was able to communicate the sincerity of my appreciation. (There was a taxi right behind them, and it looked like they were probably going in a different direction than we were.)
Something similar happened to me some 10+ years ago when I was in New Orleans. I was with two other people, waiting for a street car and a guy pulled up and offered us a ride downtown. I hesitated, and probably, left to my own devices, would have said no. But my friend eagerly and boldly accepted, and I followed him into the car and got a ride to the French Quarter.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
We went to the beach over Easter break, which was a lot of fun. It was a lovely and welcome vacation, and not much of a metaphor for what is happening in Egypt. One recent reminder of what is happening here does seem to involve a university professor’s trip to the beach. The arrest of a law professor for insulting a military officer itself is disturbing, the apparent decision to try him before a military tribunal makes it much more so.
His detention happened around a beach area, though a different one than where we were. On the road to the beach, I noticed the construction of a series of statues of military officers. They seemed very basic, and apparently were still under construction of some sort. It was clear that they were propped on bases that were in the process of being painted the colors of the flag. There were at least two variations of the statue—one a military soldier saluting and another holding a pair of binoculars, that appeared every few miles though seemingly not at regular intervals. (Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos.) They seem to me to represent the idea of the citizen-soldier (although if they were icons of particular officials I am clearly mistaken). There was a lovely and elaborate mosaic mural I also saw that told this story. It featured a soldier climbing out of a tank and being greeted by a mass of civilians waving Egyptian flags.
I have only been on this road a couple of times so I don’t have a clear sense of what preceded these statues, though there certainly were frequent icons of Mubarak (billboards and murals) that are all gone, and replaced by this new national narrative.
Friday, April 22, 2011
I have blogged a few times about the changes of names that have taken place throughout Egypt during the past few months. They have occurred on the Metro and at the university (though I recently learned that the name change to Suzanne Mubarak Hall just became “official” last week even though the sign itself had been removed a month ago). Well, the name Mubarak is now to be removed from all public places, due to a court decree that was handed down on Thursday, and is reported here in Al Jazeera.
This applies to Mubarak’s pictures which the attorney proposes replacing with the Egyptian flag. I like that the idea. Not only should Mubarak’s picture be taken down, but perhaps the idea of the Presidency in Egypt has been so transformed that, perhaps he or she (and Egypt has its first female candidate), should no longer lord over the state, symbolically or actually. Another lesson Egypt can teach the world.
Aesthetically at least, I appreciate the spirit and image of the name scratched out on subway maps, reflecting the democratic spirit of the revolution, much more so than a court order. Still I think this decision is pretty cool especially, when Jazeera reports:
The case had been filed by Samir Sabry, a lawyer, who had requested the court to have Mubarak's name replaced with the names of protesters who died during Egypt's popular uprising.
It is estimated that some 500 places in Egypt (mostly schools, but also parks and a public library near our home) bear, or bore, the Mubarak name. On the day before the court order was issued, a new count of those civilians killed during the revolution was released: 846. While it may be tempting to look at this number and compare it to the death toll of other revolutions (and there is a time and place for that sort of analysis) but 846 is 846 is 846. It gives me chills just typing. That is a lot of people.
And this, finally, leads to the math. Egypt can begin the process of renaming places for the martyrs of the revolution and, at the end of the day, will not have enough institutions for all 846.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Last year, I gave a talk at a university in Shebin El Kom, Menoufiya, in the Delta, and blogged about the experience. During the revolution, I was especially excited by the stories I heard coming out of this area, where it was clear that there were mass mobilizations on a scale equivalent to what the world saw in Cairo and in Alexandria, just without the international media attention.
I was pleased, then, to read a report on NPR from Menoufiya, particularly around labor organizing that has been taking place against a system of privatization that has been occurring throughout the country for the past several years. Privatization has been a national crisis, and is certainly one major cause of the degradation of working people, which, of course, led to the revolution. After the revolution, it is encouraging to see workers continuing the movement in the factories. Movements like these represent the places where the work of the revolution will continue.
In this context it is worth mentioning that privatization campaigns occur with the full-fledged support of the US and many international NGOs, and this factory in Shebin El-Kom manufactures products for the US market.
Monday, April 18, 2011
There is a lot of good information about what is happening in Egypt right now and some really insightful political analysis from people far more knowledgeable than me. And I hope that friends and family reading my blog are also reading widely about Egypt. Now I am reflecting on the value of my blog, which is primarily a forum for friends and family abroad to know what I see and what is going on in my world here. And it is a place for me to post photographs of that world.
So I think it makes sense for me to describe what is happening on the street where I live in Maadi. I used to live next door to the Macedonia Embassy, which I wrote about some time ago here on the blog. I have not moved, but they have, so we are no longer neighbors. Or, at least, their flag was taken down from the building next door. Plus I saw some big moving trucks a few weeks back.
This neighborhood does have a lot of embassies, though only a couple on the streets right around me. Other than Macedonia, the Malawi Embassy is also on our street. And their flag was also taken down at the time of the revolution, but this week I noticed that it was back up.
By the way, this is a great flag that I am happy to see it every morning when I walk to the gym or the bus. Malawi went back to the classic Pan-African red, black, and green last year (after having a variation of it since independence). Welcome back.
Saturday, April 16, 2011
This week, there was a new change. The security officer on the bus checks identification before allowing you to board the bus. This is an entirely new practice. Then, as it was before, when you get off the bus at campus, your id gets checked to make sure you have a bus pass (students) or are otherwise authorized to ride (staff or faculty). Then there is another id check for getting onto campus, which includes putting your bag through an airport-style x-ray machine and walking through a metal detector (which I don’t think is too sensitive or serious as I have never emptied my pockets).
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
And in other news, there was the announcement of the detention of Mubarak and sons for questioning for 15 days. The sons, and their cronies, are being held at the Tura prison which is near where I live (and which I blogged about a few months ago). The former president appears to be essentially under house arrest in Sharm.
I am not entirely sure if there is a connection between the military attacks on protestors and the high-level arrests, but it does often seem to be the case that something terribly demoralizing (and in this case tragic) is offset by something encouraging. I am not sure if this is part of a well-rehearsed script, but it does occasionally feel that way. Then again, there is not a lot of evidence that the military is particularly well-organized in its role as the country’s rulers...
I love seeing dictators held to account for their crimes almost as much as I like seeing activists in the streets (and treated respectfully by the state security authorities, whoever they might be at the moment).
Thursday, April 7, 2011
Sunday, April 3, 2011
The Revolution caused the cancellation of the Cairo International Book Fair, which is a big annual event that takes place in late January. As a result of the cancellation, the university decided to organize a much smaller Tahrir Square book fair, which I attended with R yesterday morning for a couple of hours.
I was there relatively early in the day and it was still pretty quiet, which meant lots of space for R to safely run around and have fun. Not sure how things were later in the day, or throughout the weekend.
R collected lots of gifts—an Italian flag from the Italian cultural center (several embassies had tables set up); a bag with a book, magazine, and brochures from the Azerbaijan Embassy; and miscellaneous snacks from everywhere. There were a lot of children’s displays, which was nice. At one of these, R started pointing and screaming “Bu Bu.” I looked and saw what she saw: Brown Bear, her favorite English-language book in Arabic translation, which is now the newest addition to our family library.
I have gotten R some Arabic-language children’s books (which are at my reading level) over the past few years, and her favorite character is Farhana, who has a whole series of books about her. This past week, R has been really enjoying them, so I was disappointed that we were not able to stay late enough to see the author who was doing a children’s program and reading later in the day. I was, however, excited to learn the titles of the next three books in the series: Farhana Loves Egypt, Farhana Loves Tahrir Square, and Farhana Loves Freedom.
The publisher told me they are still at the printer but should be available in the next couple of weeks.
Saturday, April 2, 2011
Thursday, March 31, 2011
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Gigi Ibrahim was about to inaugurate a free speech program at the American University in Cairo when the name etched in gold across a heavy beige marble plaque hanging outside the hall stopped her in her tracks: H. E. Suzanne Mubarak Conference Hall.
So Ms. Ibrahim, 24, having cut her teeth as a political activist at Tahrir Square, immediately applied the lessons learned about direct action, found a screwdriver and took it down with a friend’s help. “When we saw it we thought, ‘Well this just needs to come down,’ ” she said, although officially the name holds.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Personal firearms for protection seem to be proliferating in Cairo. I see advertisements for them at the local store. Mainly, I think, people are buying them to protect their homes, feeling that the disappearance and distrust of the police and other state security forces makes it necessary for folks to take personal security into their own hands. I am not a big fan of guns in the hands of police or civilians.
Friday, March 25, 2011
The Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah was in town this week, and I had the extraordinary honor to introduce him during a lecture on campus. His lecture was scheduled to be held in Suzanne Mubarak Hall, a conference room named for the former dictator, which the university administration has been unwilling to change. The best approach, suggested by a colleague during a list-serve discussion of this point, seemed apparent: it was incumbent upon anyone speaking in this auditorium to comment on the name. I thought and wrote long and hard—really for several weeks—over what I should say and how I should say it. I wanted to be unambiguous, but economical. And I did not want to distract from the speaker. It really consumed me for a period of time.
Part of what I came up with was:
The name reminds us of the shameful relationship of this institution to the former regime, and, in some cases, our own silence and complicity. And it may serve as a symbol that the extraordinary work undertaken by so many Egyptians during the past two months remains, at this moment, incomplete as long as vestiges of the former regime remain among us. While the name of this room represents some of the most troubling aspects of this university, tonight’s speaker reminds us of it at its best...
Nothing special, really.
Then two things happened.
One—some of us talked about it with Farah over lunch before the lecture, and he felt that there was merit to keeping the name because it provides an opportunity for reflection. This is based on his experience living in South Africa, where he explained many buildings have the names of former apartheid leaders. These names become important mementos of terrible history. His was a valuable experience, indeed.
Two—sometime after 3pm, I learned that the name plaque had just been removed from the conference hall. I even walked down there to confirm. Here is a photo distributed on a faculty list-serve:
Part of my revised introduction:
Our joy on this occasion is heightened by noting that this is, I believe, the inaugural event in the newly renamed P0071. And while the change may serve as an important symbol of the extraordinary work undertaken by so many Egyptians during the past two months, I hope that the erasure of the former name does not cause us to forget the troubling relationship of this institution to the regime, and, in some cases, our own silence and complicity. As our guest pointed out to us earlier, based on his experiences in South Africa, where he lives, such sites provide opportunities for important public conversations about our shared history (which is why I mention it now).
Much the same sentiment, I think. And I guess the lesson lies somewhere in the notion that one must never be silent, and must always speak up, regardless of the name on the door.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
There were still a number of people in the street as you can see here. The tanks are not in the picture.
I was not sure what these folks were doing on the roof right above the wall.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
I did have a taxi driver on Saturday night (the evening of the election), who was extremely enthusiastic in his opposition to the amendments. He was a young guy, originally from Fayoum, who had a tribute to the January 25 martyrs hanging from his rearview mirror. So when I asked him why he voted “no,” he simply told me “Midan Tahrir.”
Saturday, March 19, 2011
There are several issues which motivate the “no” folks. One of the major ones is that the amendments maintain the provisions for emergency rule which has been in effect for the past 30 years. For example, the amendment that allows for elected presidents to serve no more than two four-year terms, could be overridden by executive authorities which remain in place. Furthermore, it seems like the constitutional question has in many ways evolved into a referendum on military rule.
I have asked a few taxi drivers about the elections, and the most remarkable thing is their willingness to talk politics so openly. There is no consensus, but I did ride in a taxi last night whose driver told me he was voting “yes.” His explanation, to the best that I could understand it, was that Mubarak is gone, the people won, and he seeks as quick of a return as possible to some semblance of stability. Strong centralized military rule—at least in the short term—is considered by some to provide the best opportunity for that.
In my American Studies class, we read the US Constitution, and have recently been reading the Civil War amendments (13th, 14th, 15th). One of the things I have discussed in class was the position of many radical abolitionists who burnt the Constitution at demonstrations and believed that amendments were not sufficient to change a document stained by slavery. In some ways, the question is similar here--whether or not to replace or amend Egypt’s 40-year-old constitution (which you can read in English here).
There are lots of other issues at play, which are beyond what I can explain. Some critics feel that it is too soon to vote on amendments, that the process should be more through, and take more time. You can find some insightful and detailed analysis online.
For me, one of the most remarkable things has been the expectation of high turnout. Given the opposition’s lack of confidence in the process, and the short time since its announcement, I was not sure what to expect. I imagined that a significant segment of the population that would express their opposition by declining to participate in an election they do not consider legitimate. On this point, I think I was starkly wrong. Everyone I have spoken to over the past few days is planning on going to the polls. (People can vote at any polling station they want by using their national identity card.)
In December 2005, I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo for their constitutional referendum, when many people were voting in a real election for the first time. It was exciting. A holiday was declared (as it is for tomorrow here). The process in DRC was more involved—voter registration was required. There was an international commission supervising the election. The Congolese constitution had been written over the course of several years following the installation of Joseph Kabila as head of a transitional coalition government (following the assassination of his father in 2001). It was overwhelmingly approved. There was little controversy, but the turnout was high. In many ways it was a dry run for presidential elections the following summer, which Joseph Kabila won in a run off. With the next presidential election approaching later this year, in January, Kabila pushed constitutional amendments through parliament, including one that will limit the presidential election to one round. The public argument is economic; however, this will clearly benefit Kabila by preventing the diverse opposition groups from forming a strong coalition behind the first round’s second place finisher.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
This was particularly valuable at this precise moment, following last week when serious attacks on demonstrators raised serious questions about the direction in which things are moving. And still, we are no closer to being able to answer those questions this week. And while the response should not be one of self-satisfaction, it does seem useful to keep this wide-angle view within our sights at all times.
There are a few additional notes from the talk I wanted to share.
- One of his main arguments was that throughout the past two centuries of non-violent and democratic revolutions in this region, those taking place mark the end of the old anti-colonialist nationalism in that they are not mainly against foreign occupation.
- He believes that US public opinion—overwhelming support for the Egyptian demonstrators—forced the US government to moderate its own positions driven by economic interest.
- He sees a revolution in US media coverage, where the standard talking heads no longer have anything to say, and forcing an entirely new approach to the region from outlets like CNN.
And a couple of pieces of information—not news, but new to me.
- In the past ten years, the poverty rate in Egypt (those making less than $200 per month) has increased from 39% to 43%.
- Egypt and Tunisia both have 70% literacy rates.
- The tear gas that was used against peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square in from Pennsylvania. It had been widely discussed as coming from the US, which I knew. But I had not realized, until his talk and a followup google search, they were manufactured by Combined Systems Inc. in Jamestown, Pennsylvania. This was widely reported, including on CNN, but I somehow missed the Pennsylvania part of the story. (Maybe because there was no internet here for the week.)
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Among the photos were several of bags of shredded paper from the offices. This reminded me of something I read a couple of years ago (and had not heard before). When the US Embassy in Tehran was taken over in 1979, US diplomats anticipated the impending attack by shredding all of its files. Iranian activists, however, saved all of the shredded paper and spent years putting it all back together! The results of the years of hard work was the publication in multiple volumes of all of these shredded documents. I hope those bags of shredded documents meet a similar fate to those from the US Embassy in Tehran.
Sunday, March 6, 2011
Yesterday I took R to a Revolution Festival that was happening in my neighborhood. Tons of flags. Lots of music. Fun for all (except those caught in the traffic). It was originally scheduled for last Friday, the one-month anniversary of the start of the revolution but there had been a police shooting a couple of days earlier (another story) so it was rescheduled. And it was able to celebrate another victory—the departure of the former Prime Minister.
There were thousands of people out. The street was closed. There were volunteers doing security though I, with a baby stroller, was quickly waved around the side so I would not have to wait. R was something of a celebrity and made lots of friends.
There was not a lot of politicking going on. It was mostly commercial with people advertising or selling one thing or other. The Egyptian Revolution sponsored in part by Auntie Anne’s soft pretzels. (No I am not making this up.)
What did amaze me about this scene was how unfamiliar it was. Here we have a country where the streets now belong to the people to do with them what they choose—from politicking to partying and, at its best, both at the same time. I ran into some students there—the main demographic was 15-25 year olds—and talked to them about how novel they found this scene. And I think this is one of the legacies of the revolution—the reinvention of public space.
I wish I had taken more pictures. My camera batteries were low. I had the foresight to purchase new ones but forgot to bring them along.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
"I take my goals from you, and I promise you, if I cannot fulfill those objectives, I will come and join you as a protester."
After Shafiq’s resignation, I spoke to a student who, like me, was in shock at the pace of the changes taking place. He was, also like me, a bit cautious. What does this mean? Is this a power play by the military? Or is there another explanation? And of course, the skeptic in me wants to approach it cynically. Prime Ministers aren’t replaced because the people protest and want it. But then, I thought, of course they are. And I had this conversation with the student—this is entirely logical. Why would those in power not listen to the people? They should. It makes sense. They have learned the lessons of the past month—the enormous power of people. Millions of people. In the street. It really makes perfect sense.
I guess I had a random thought about the labor protests in Wisconsin, and now spreading throughout the midwest US. I have seen and heard commentary comparing the situation there to this region. While there were some really inspiring signs of solidarity on both parts (pro-Wisconsin signs in Tahrir Square and vise versa), it seemed too facile for me. But what finally hit me was this revelation of what participatory democracy can look like. Because while the causes in both places are completely different, the common ground seems to lie in the belief that lasting change can happen through direct action. When I was protesting in New York in the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq, I thought the best possible outcome was to slow down the imperial war machine. The invasion could be delayed. A visible US opposition could convince US allies not to support the invasion. And I believe that we may have succeeded in those respects, though the ongoing tragedy makes it hard to find any kind of victory in those achievements. However, what I have witnessed in Egypt has forced me to reconsider everything I thought I knew about the possibilities of political action.
Two additional scenes from the surreal world I live in:
- On Wednesday night, the eve of his resignation/removal, the Prime Minister debated Egypt’s most famous writer (and an outspoken opposition figure) on television. A political debate! And a novelist!
- This morning (Friday), the new Prime Minister went back to Tahrir Square and proclaimed: "I take my goals from you, and I promise you, if I cannot fulfill those objectives, I will come and join you as a protester."
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
I wish I had a camera to take a picture of the sign. (I really should have one with me at all times.) It is a small thing, so small that I did not even notice it last week when I went downtown on the metro (and I am sure it had already been erased then).
As for Tahrir itself, it was still lively as there were still demonstrations taking place at various positions around the square. The largest congregation, I guess, may have been 1,000 people, and there were several smaller groups of perhaps a couple of hundred. There was a strike a couple of blocks off the square, at a bank building as well. There were army officers standing watch, but they did not appear to be positioned aggressively, but after Friday night, it seems like all bets are off.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Last night was a different story. He was trying to convince me to try a new hairstyle—for the revolution, he explained. (For what its worth, these folks are Coptic Christians, which I mention to emphasize the point that this revolution has widespread popular support and is not religious, as it sometimes has been portrayed though I think and hope this notion is now thoroughly discredited.) Add to the scene a television, which was showing Qadafi’s long speech (not the 30-second one). The speech was surreal. It was fun watching it there, and that took the edge of the devastating tragedy of what is happening there..
It is hard to describe the excitement of people, and what is happening on so many of the city’s streets. So many of these scenes seem like bad nationalist propaganda, with citizens working together happily and joyfully. But the new rainbow murals in my neighborhood are real. I will try to take some pictures.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
We arrived back in Egypt Sunday, and I started teaching yesterday. For now, I can give my initial impressions of my arrival. The sky was grey since there have been khamisin (sandstorms) this week. We went from the airport back to our apartment. I only saw one tank, which was a huge change from our trip to the airport when we left. Then, they were everywhere. On the ride in, the one I saw was parked in front of the J. W. Marriott Hotel, which is large compound out in the desert. It was pretty inconspicuous.
As we came into the neighborhood, I saw a few things that really excited me. On Road 216, there were a dozen or so young teenagers painting the curbs of the median on the road. It looked good. Then we made another turn onto Road 254 and there was another group of teenagers, mostly girls, a little bit older, also doing some work. They were fixing a busted up sidewalk which is right along a route I take to the bus stop everyday. And that big pile of garbage which I would pass daily for two years was bundled up into a few dozen bags. Lamposts that were dug up as barricades are replanted in the ground. There are Egyptian flags everywhere. This is one view of the revolution and young Egyptians are taking pride in their city and their environment. It makes perfect sense, but there is something really amazing in seeing it. As we continued toward home, the midans in the neighborhood had newly painted curbs and especially well-tended gardens. There are still quite a few potholes in the street, primarily from the barricades that folks had set up in the neighborhood a few weeks ago.
On campus, the service workers (security and custodians) were on strike, which is great to see. There are striking workers throughout the country—working folks have learned the lessons from Tahrir Square and putting them into practice in extraordinary ways right away. It was great to reconnect with colleagues. I enjoyed my time with my students, and look forward to more classroom time. On the way home from campus, I saw a few more tanks, but still fewer than before I left.
Friday, February 18, 2011
So, to be brief, I do intend to be a more faithful and frequent (not sure exactly what that means yet) blogger during the coming months. And we will see what transpires. Needless to say, I am excited to return and looking forward to getting back into the classroom.
One thing I hope for this blog is to provide some context for some of the pictures I took. On Wednesday, February 2, I went to Tahrir Square, wanting to witness what was happening in the city I have called home for the past three years. Partly, I was inspired by the demonstration the day before which attracted millions (literally) of people, and disappointed that I had missed it. I was also sad to be leaving the following day—it felt inevitable and like the right decision—but I was sad to be leaving so many friends and comrades at such a critical historical moment. Anyway, so I spent a few hours downtown, careful to return via the subway before curfew at 3pm.
The Wednesday I was there was also the day that pro-Mubarak thugs on horses and camels attacked demonstrators. And it was also the day when foreign journalists were under attack from some of the same people. Fortunately, I missed the violence by about an hour. I did want to share a couple of images from that day.
First, when I entered the square, there was checkpoint, organized by the demonstrators themselves. I showed my id (US passport) and was politely searched. They saw my camera, and I was allowed to enter. It was very professional. In this picture, you can see a group of women off to the right because they had separate lines for men and women (with women searching women). Part of what struck me about this scene was that you had the demonstrators in control of the square, which included performing the security functions one typically associates with the state (either the police or the military). My understanding is that at other times and other positions, the checkpoints were much more rigidly controlled, and that the military was involved. (Though I understand that female civilians assisted the military in those instances—which enabled women to bring in things that the military might have disallowed.)
Still, the military was on the scene. And here is a crappy short video I took of what some of them were doing—cleaning up garbage with the assistance of civilians.
It was really a remarkable scene to see police/military functions civilianized in multiple directions. Security performed by civil society, and military performing a civilian service. The latter is, I think, crucial for the future of the country—will the military continue to serve the people in this way? Is there a way to maintain the military as an institution (something that is probably needed to maintain stability), while creating a new civil society profile for them?
There were many things I saw that were unfamiliar and that, perhaps, did not feel “right,” but I did not feel like I had instincts. I had some good conversations with people although I was awkwardly approached while taking pictures and asked if I was a journalist. I insisted no (unaware of the targeting of western journalists to come—Egyptian and regional journalists had long been targets), and my interlocutor walked away. There were also, mostly outside the square, small groups of pro-Mubarak folks. You can see them carrying pictures of the then-President. Presumably police families. I did not see anyone on horseback. This is another lo-fi short video I took—you can see a small argument taking place off to the right.
The civilian security was clearly overtaken by the pro-regime thugs (though I believe they entered from a different side of the square). The reasons for checking identification also became clear. When the thugs were apprehended, as was widely reported, their id cards were all police ids, which presumably is what security was looking for, and why the thugs needed horses to rush the barricades and lines.