Thursday, February 24, 2011

Barbershop

I went to get my haircut last night. The young guys there who have been cutting my hair for the past three years were visibly giddy. I was actually last there on January 25, the day the protests began, and one of the barbers told me, with a note of cynicism, that nothing would come of it. That was a refrain that I heard repeated by Egyptian friends during the first couple of days.

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

After the revolution...

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

On the state, and some images

The time for returning to Egypt is rapidly approaching—tomorrow, Saturday, to be precise. I did not get a chance to write everything I had hoped for a range of reasons—from the mundane lack of time to the rapidly shifting and transforming situation in Egypt itself, where things I saw, thought, and felt, have been entirely upended by subsequent developments. Two weeks ago feels like epochs ago, and in some ways it is.

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.

video

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.

video

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.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Protesters' Demands

When I was in Tahrir, I noticed a group of activists painting an enormous sign on the ground, and took this picture.


















When reading the excellent Jadaliyya website a couple of days ago, I saw the amazing 10-story-tall finished product.


This banner lists the protesters' demands


At first, I had thought that is was to send a message to helicopters that were newly hovering over the demonstration, but in fact it turned into this gorgeous banner, listing the demands of the protesters. They are translated into English on the wesbite.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My first post-Mubarak blog post!

My head has been spinning since Thursday when the shocking disappointment of Mubarak’s non-resignation speech was transformed into the joy and excitement of Friday’s news.

I am still behind on blogging, and hopefully will catch up during the next few days, and weeks, but it all feels surreal. That includes the disappointment of missing what was clearly the best party of all time!

I guess it makes sense that in some ways the past three weeks feel like it has been much longer. In the evolution of democracy, it has been epochs, not weeks.

I am excited to return to Cairo—the whole fam is heading back home on Saturday to a different country than the one we left. What an honor!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Staying with friends

After Saturday night, we made the decision to stay with friends who live about a mile away from us. There were several reasons for the decision. First of all, we wanted to be around other people, and the family we were staying with lived in a building with several other friends and colleagues. In particular, there are lots of other kids there for R to play with. Second, their street was a little bit quieter. Our flat is right off of one of the main roads into Maadi, which was why we had to listen to so many nearby tanks and guns the night before. Third, they have satellite television so we could keep abreast of things by staying glued to Al Jazeera. Fourth, because there are other colleagues in the building, we also found ourselves better apprised of what the university was and was not doing.

A friend with a car picked us up on Sunday morning. He parked at the end of the block because there were cars still blocking the road from the night before (and they remained in place for most of the rest of the week). We packed carefully though not comprehensively. There was, somewhere in my mind, the possibility that we would never be able to get back in (for a range of reasons). I was extremely concerned about a decade worth of research documentation culled from archives on three continents, which, at the risk of sounding dramatic, represents my life work. Its loss would be devastating, though our primary concern was and remains the safety of our family, friends, and neighbors. (I spent Monday and Tuesday back the apartment, scanning materials, organizing and packing, realizing that we would probably be evacuating later in the week. I made the 20-minute walk in the morning after the 8am curfew lifted and returned to our friends’ place before curfew which was 3pm those days.)

The place where we were staying is closer to Maadi Sakinat, and generally did seem quieter although on Sunday, there were helicopters and fighter jets flying low over the city and neighborhood. (You can see a helicopter through the trees, to the left of the flag, in the picture at left. Both photos are from Tahrir, Wed., Feb. 2.)













Our friends also live somewhat close to the Interior Ministry’s notorious Tora Prison, which has been the site of the torture of countless political detainees over the years, and where there was a well-publicized escape. There was a lot of noise—gunshots and explosives of sorts—coming from the direction.


View Torah Mahkoum Prison in a larger map

We were on Road 14. I should point out that the noise from the prison never seemed threatening because although the distance the sound travels is not particularly far, the prison is (or was) located across a highway overpass from our neighborhood so it was not as “close” as it appears on the map or sounded during those days. Some of the stories coming out about the prisoner escapes are among the most remarkable that I have heard in the past few weeks.

From the roof of the building, we could also see tracer fire being shot into the air (often followed by live rounds). It was hard to discern precisely where it was coming from. It may have been coming from the prison. Or it may have been coming from two nearby apartment buildings that are residences for retired military personnel.

We stayed three nights there and need to shout out big thanks to those who put us up and put up with us.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Footnote on images

I took all of the photos I am posting here, though I did not shoot the videos embedded from youtube. I did shoot a couple of short videos I may try to post in the week ahead.

Goodbye Barney Fife; Hello Tanks

So, Saturday was an amazing day, and the most personally trying. Friday night, we had the comfort of a group of close friends in our home, which enabled us to drown out the news and the sounds, which seemed relatively far off in the distance. On Saturday, we spent the day inside, talking with friends on the telephone about what was going on around us in anticipation of the coming 5pm curfew. Shortly before 5pm, I looked outside the window and saw about 40 men in the street with sticks and pipes and baseball bats and at least one rifle. Both ends of the block were barricaded with debris and cars and eventually drums which were set on fire. It took me a moment to process, but I soon recognized many of my neighbors. This was a neighborhood group that had organized itself to protect the block from the possibility of looting by the police or people in the employ of the NDP. And this was the approach—lock down the block. While the men were on the street, the women were on the roofs and balconies with molotov cocktails ready to rain down on any intruders. Even kids got into it—there were some children on the balcony across the street from us armed with tennis rackets. Our doorman/building super (there is no precise English translation) was active and involved throughout it all. We sent down dinner for him on Saturday night, and food throughout the week.

It was remarkable for its organization, and definitely affirms my confidence in the ability of civil society to organize itself to provide necessary services absent the state. Crisis brought out a sense of community—longtime neighbors met each other for the first time. (ASIDE: There are lots of similar stories from Tahrir Square, including many of garbage cleanup by citizens and soldiers. Here is one photo I took on Wednesday. It is a remarkable image for a city with no effective sanitation system and famous for its dirty streets.

)

Back to Saturday, which was a wild scene: Businesses on our block which had opened in the morning quickly closed, removed all displays from the windows, or hung newspaper in their displays. The building next to us houses the Egyptian offices of Michelin and their sign was covered so that it would not be targeted. The police were gone as was the Macedonian Embassy, and its flag, which was housed in the building next to ours. Prior to last week, there had been a permanent encampment of police there—typically five to ten at any given time. These Barney Fife muhfuhs (as J hilariously called them) were gone and were not seen again for the next six days (as long as we were there).

There were a number of rumors circulating, and I still don’t know what was true. One was that the police had raided the local police station (in one account, three people were killed) and were armed and looting (not sure). A friend and neighbor had a car stolen the night before (true). Another was that big box store (Carrefour) and upscale shopping mall—a few miles away—had been looted and set on fire. It was definitely looted, and there appears to be fire damage in this youtube video:

Saturday night, our neighborhood watch did its job. If a vehicle drove by, everyone rushed it and sent it away. At around 10pm, I heard someone hollering a signal and out rushed people from all the buildings. There was one suspicious looking white pickup truck that did, from my view on our balcony, look like a police car (which are not as standard in appearance as those in the US). People rushed it. One of the neighbors had a gun, and shot it in the air a few times. It was one of those moments where I was proud of and grateful for my neighbors, but still uncomfortable to see and hear the guns.

We spent the night talking to friends nearby—asking what, if anything, they could see. It was all frightening. We heard occasional gunfights, some of which seemed to be no more than a block away. And then the tanks came in. We could hear them, but not see them. Our street is right off of one of the main entrance points to Maadi (coming from new Maadi). We heard reports from friends abroad that Maadi was now on the international news. It got very loud again around 2am and somehow through it all we eventually fell asleep, though not before making the decision that in the morning we would go stay with friends, which we did on Sunday morning.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A footnote on the military

I should point out that the story of the military is still being written, and still contested. And I am not sure that it will have a happy ending. See this recent post on a blog (Occupied Cairo) that a student sent me.

the first days...

I am still not sure where to begin to talk about the past two weeks, but things began on Tuesday, January 25, which was an official government holiday in Egypt, Police Day. There were large demonstrations in Tahrir Square downtown, and I stayed at home (the university was closed) preparing my classes for the spring semester. This was also the first day of telecommunications disruptions. Twitter was shut down. FB was hard to access. An Egypt-based Gmail email account was offline. The demonstration was clearly a success as protesters organized at Tahrir Square, and the police responded in their typically brutal way. It was clear though, at this moment, that something special was happening. And it was clear that the government feared it. The sense was that if demonstrators were able to hold part of the Midan, that the mass demonstrations called for Friday following noon prayer would be historic, and indeed they were, beyond almost anyone's expectations.

On Wednesday and Thursday, as I was in the office at the university in New Cairo, I was following events online, in the local and international press. At home, our internet was sketchy before the government shut it down, and we do not have satellite television. Still, there was something surreal about following online from international sources what is happening in your city. Second, third, fourth hand reports and lots of rumors accumulated.

Friday morning, we woke up and went to supermarket to stock up on supplies (kind of how some Americans do in anticipation of a Nor’easter blizzard). By Friday afternoon, things jumped off with folks from throughout Cairo converging at Midan Tahrir. During the afternoon, as demonstrators converged, the government responded. Cell phone and internet service was severed throughout Egypt. (We have a landline at home, but very few people had the telephone number.) Friday was also the first night of a curfew—set for 6pm, enforced by the military. Though the time changes from day-to-day, the curfew is set to continue indefinitely.

We had, several weeks earlier, organized a party for that Friday night and a few friends actually came. Through it, we could hear shots of some sort or another in the distance. A friend with military experience thought they were tear gas canisters. Folks in our neighborhood even said they could smell the tear gas in the air when they woke up on Saturday morning. They sounded like they were relatively far away though there were reports of an attack at a local police station and a fire at a nearby government office. Still lots of conflicting reports. Our friends broke curfew to walk home—our neighborhood was still quiet and foreigners have a certain kind of liberty to move around under the circumstances.

Throughout the night, we got occasional news from friends who have satellite tv, and were watching reports on Al Jazeera. We also had friends who were down at the demonstrations. Without cell phone service, it was hard to get in touch with folks, and there were some scary moments, though by the next day we were able to track down everyone. Friday night also saw the burning down of the ruling party’s headquarters, the NDP building, which you can see in this picture I took on Wednesday. (The ochre building to the right is the Egyptian Museum.)

Friday night ended with a speech by Mubarak, apparently recorded much earlier in the day, but not broadcast on television until well after midnight. Mubarak’s second speech on Tuesday night was also broadcast quite late. Both were unbelievably foul. As for their timing, apparently he did them as late as possible so that they would not further enrage the demonstrators to mobilize, and march on the presidential palace, which had been threatened all week. A friend told me that apparently the previous regime in Tunisia took a similar approach.

Friday was also the day that the police were sent home and that the military moved in. Briefly, the police come under the Interior Ministry and are hated, brutal, and corrupt. The military had much more broad popular support, something which initially surprised me. The sight of demonstrators and civilians welcoming the soldiers and tanks were as shocking as they quickly became commonplace. One of my favorite pictures I took was in Garden City on Wednesday, less than a mile away from Tahrir Square, in an area where there are a lot of embassies, and large military installations blocking the roads. A family that was walking in front of me stopped and took their son’s picture wearing one soldier’s helmet in front of a makeshift barricade.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The View from Cairo

I am not sure where to begin the story, since the Egyptian government shut down the internet and prevented me from blogging in real time. But hopefully I can spend the next week sharing stories from the past week, which I mostly spent indoors, where I felt the excitement of a great revolution (coupled with some occasional, frightening moments). Our decision to leave on Thursday was one of the more difficult I have made, but things remain volatile. And while my fear for our family’s personal safety is minimal, there are enough concerns about what will happen during the next few weeks--if the banks remain closed, if food becomes scarce, if medicine is scarce, if water or electricity are turned off, if telecommunications are interrupted, if the police revolt—that convinced me our family’s decision, such as it was and based on the resources available to us, was the best one at the time. The university is closed until at least February 13, and I plan to return to teach at the start of the semester, whenever that is.


On Wednesday, I did attend the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. To express solidarity. To witness. To experience a liberated zone under an authoritarian regime. To take pictures. It does not amount to much, and I have many friends who spent (and continue to spend) far more time there than I did, but it was a profoundly affecting few hours. These are some images...more words and photos to follow.