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.

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.

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