Thursday, March 31, 2011

Strange Fruit

I played Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit" in my Introduction to American Studies class today, and the students clapped when it ended.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More on renaming the hall...

I just read an article that appeared in the New York Times last week (two days after I introduced Nuruddin Farah in that room) about the process of renaming the many Egyptian institutions that bear the Mubarak name, and it included this account from the university:

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

Link to Khalidi lecture

Since I blogged about Rashid Khalidi's lecture a few weeks ago, I wanted to let folks know that a variation of the speech is available online at Jadaliyya.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Saturday afternoon, around 2pm, I was getting on the subway headed downtown. On the platform, I see two guys talking, and one is holding a large cardboard box. He opens it and shows his friend his new purchase—a rifle (still in the plastic in the box). I do not know enough about guns to say anything about it, but it was surprisingly casual and not at all secretive.

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 room formerly known as...

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:

The name around which I had organized my introduction was obsolete. Thankfully. But without explanation. So I had one hour to rethink and rewrite the introduction I spent weeks contemplating.

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

Interior Ministry fire

There was a big fire at the Interior Ministry yesterday, which you can read about in your local newspaper. The building is a block away from where I had my Arabic tutoring session, so I stopped off to see what was happening this afternoon. Quite a bit of damage as you can tell. There was a sizable demonstration of mid-level police officers outside. It is not clear who is responsible for the fire, but in many of these instances, it appears to be an attempt to destroy evidence.

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

Election results

If you ever needed a reason to take anything I write advisedly, you can take the election results. The constitutional amendments were approved with 77% of the vote. Even though most folks I know voted “no,” my personal polling was not a sound prognosticator (not unlike what I saw in the US in 2004 when everyone I know voted for Kerry). The turnout was 55%, which is quite impressive and encouraging. Many people want economic stability, and feel like the way to achieve that is by moving forward as soon as possible. For one provocative analysis, you can see Sandmonkey’s blog here.

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

Constitutional Referendums

Today is a big day—the constitutional referendum. Egyptians will go to the polls—many for the first time—to vote yes or no on an amended constitution. The issues are complicated on many levels. Most of the activists and opposition groups have endorsed voting “no”; the Muslim Brotherhood leadership came out in support of it but a youth faction has come out in opposition. Actually I can say that I don’t personally know of anyone who is voting “yes.” All of my students said they are voting “no.” I can’t read too much into it because I know that the people I know are not necessarily a representative sample.

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

“Preliminary Historical Observations on the Arab Revolutions of 2011”

Historian Rashid Khalidi spoke on “Preliminary Historical Observations on the Arab Revolutions of 2011,” and there was something refreshing in his perspective. He has studied and followed the history and politics of the Arab world for decades and to hear him thanking the Egyptian people for what they have accomplished was, frankly, touching. It was similar to what I felt when I heard Robert Fisk saying this is the happiest story he has covered in 35 years in the region. Analysts of the region who I read and admire, and who have been staunch critics of its authoritarian regimes, seem genuinely happy, at times almost giddy. A kind of “this is it” moment that even the most cynical and critical among us must recognize.

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

On shredded paper

So the latest, and amazing news, are the demonstrations at state security offices throughout the country, beginning with Alexandria. In addition to the goal of toppling state security (and the verdict is still out it seems), folks in Alexandria liberated political prisoners still held in prison. Incredible. Activists breaking people out. And the other amazing project has been people in the offices trying to save as much documentation as possible and to prevent the agency from shredding and burning its records. So, activists went in with digital cameras and started taking pictures which were and continue to be posted online. It is really amazing, and while there does seem to be some pushback at several sites, I remain in awe of the brilliant things protestors continue to do in the interest of transparency, justice, and history.

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

Scenes from the Maadi Festival

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.)

I was slightly heartened, however, to see that the most lively table was that featuring supporters of the protesters in Libya.

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."

I went to class on Thursday morning and when I got out the country has a new Prime Minister. Unbelievable. Ahmed Shafiq, who was a holdover from the Mubarak regime, was deeply unpopular and huge protests were planned to call for his resignation or removal on Friday. He was replaced by the military by a Essam Sharaf, a figure who the opposition leaders had proposed—a former Transportation Minister who resigned from the Mubarak government several years ago in protest, and who even joined the protests in Tahrir Square.

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

De-Mubarakization of the Metro

From the Metro station formerly known as Mubarak...

From the NY Times. Photo and article by Mohamed El Dahshan. See the article here.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Station Formerly Known As Mubarak

On Sunday, I rode the subway downtown and as I was exiting the car, I noticed a “correction” on the line map that appeared above the door. The “Mubarak” station was crossed out by a marker. I figured its renaming, and the renaming of anything associated with the former regime was inevitable (and this includes a room on our university campus). But I was touched to see it done so directly. So on my ride home, I was careful to check every available map, perhaps a half-dozen in all, and all of them had “Mubarak” crossed.

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.