Gracious, Tahrir

Originally published in Newsweek Pakistan, April 4, 2011:

Mohammed Abed / AFP

Early morning, Feb. 4, I watched with weary eyes as the Day of Departure in Cairo’s Tahrir Square unfolded on my TV screen in sleepy Wisconsin. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators prayed in unison, with one loud, booming voice. They were demanding the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and his regime.

Hours later, I was on a bus to Chicago to pick up a visa at the Egyptian consulate. In contrast to Tahrir, nothing seemed amiss there. A timid male receptionist with a trimmed mustache supervised a square desk with nothing on it but a stack of old visa forms, a phone, and the Quran. Hieroglyphics hung from walls, next to the obligatory picture of Mubarak.
I landed in Cairo two days later. The streets were empty because of an Army-imposed curfew. This blankness was in stark contrast to the bustling Cairene streets I remembered from my last trip in 2008. Tanks doubled as roadblocks every half mile or so.
The taxi driver and his “supervisor” told me how tourism was taking a hit, how Army-controlled gas stations were only open for a short time during the day, and even then the price of gas had gone up dramatically. They just wanted the country to return to normal, and Mubarak stood for normalcy. This was a common complaint from those who didn’t protest— like my cousin in Alexandria who was worried about the Muslim Brotherhood usurping the uprising—and from bloggers who had been to more rural areas. Not surprisingly, this was also the narrative on state-controlled TV. Accordingly, the driver, while sympathetic to change, thought Al Jazeera wasn’t telling the whole story.
The next morning, I made my way down to Tahrir Square with Cyril Almeida, the Pakistani journalist with whom I was staying. The taxi took us to the edge of the Qasr al-Nil bridge, from which we had to walk. People had queued to get into the square, some of them carrying bags full of food for the protesters. Everything about the line seemed political: young men yelled “Honor Egypt!” with arms full of flags for sale. They talked about what post-Mubarak Egypt would look like, expressing disbelief at reports on how much money the regime had allegedly embezzled. Even the line seemed political—people I spoke with later expressed wonder that Egyptian people could actually form queues. I spoke with a few boys behind us. One remarked that something like Mubarak can never happen again, that the next president should know exactly when to enter office and when to leave. Another said that while families had been coming to Tahrir, it wasn’t going to be all fun and games: the goal was still to overthrow the regime.
The Qasr al-Nil entrance was flanked by a fence on one side, a tank on the other, behind which stood a mess of makeshift barricades and barbed wire. The military décor seemed merely symbolic. Citizens were the ones playing security by checking IDs and giving pat-downs at the entrance. Inside, the mood was carnivalesque. Drummers and singers chanted revolutionary slogans and sang nationalist songs. Banners flew in English and Arabic, both proclaiming those now legendary words: “The people demand removal of the regime.” I met a blogger friend, whom I had previously only known online, on the sidewalk which separated two sides of the square. On one side, a group of women dressed vividly in a rainbow array of hijabs chanted and marched. On the other, a swarm of children did the same.
Nadia, my blogger friend, became my guide and led me through the different parts of the square. We ventured to the middle, once a grass-covered traffic circle and now a tent city. I use the word “tent” loosely, since shelters were constructed from poles, stakes, rope, and whatever could be draped over them. We ducked through the narrow makeshift alleyways and thoroughfares, saw women, men, and children of all backgrounds making food, sleeping, living in these highly unusual circumstances. I puzzled the most at the sleeping, since Tahrir held an excited revolutionary buzz, with people talking and chanting, and loudspeakers blaring speeches and music. I came to understand later that as long as the buzz is constant, one can ignore it.
We found one of the first tents established in the square, the so-called “Freedom Motel” started by blogger Tarek Shalaby. It had become a meeting spot for bloggers and net-savvy youth, most of them fluent in English. Tarek described some of the impromptu systems that had developed in the square, like the station for charging cell phones. One would have to leave an ID with the cell phone and take a checkout number in return. Another man said he had left his job in the U.S. to be with his family and friends during the revolution.
We then made our way to another entrance. Men stood on a burnt out police truck that had been turned onto its side. Those entering the square were greeted with songs and the waving of Egyptian flags. Nadia pointed to the top of the residential building from where Mubarak’s supporters had been throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks at their opponents below. I’d seen the same building on Al Jazeera some days earlier. Behind the truck, someone had taken stones thrown by Mubarak supporters and spelled out irhal (“leave”) on the street. Nearby, men camped next to tanks still manned by the Army to ensure these didn’t move on Tahrir’s residents.
Around 4 p.m., the square began to fill up. Families came together, along with students and businessmen. Nadia hadn’t seen crowds of this size since the protests began. There was a marked difference in the environment and mood between Tahrir and the rest of Cairo. A blogger, Mona Seif, had tweeted right after pro-Mubarak thugs attacked the square that Tahrir was the safest place in the city.
She was right. I felt no aggression toward me, no fear. When I spoke to people outside of Tahrir who opposed or were skeptical of the protests, they would speak with a shadow of contempt if not outright hostility.
Evening fell on the square with pockets of men gathering to pray. Others formed a wall around them for protection. On our way out, we saw a bride and groom, married in Tahrir that day. Here was the union of the private and the public, the sacred and the mundane.
Exiting the square, we walked toward the state TV building, now a fortress with no less than 40 tanks surrounding it and soldiers stationed behind mounted guns on the second story. The streets outside brought me back to the reality of Cairo. The sidewalks and streets were thick with garbage, traffic was backed up and barely moving, honking continued unabated. The fallout from the clashes was visible. The Army guarded the Ramses Hilton, whose sign had been defaced with anti-Mubarak slogans. A wall read “Mubarak=sadness.” Nadia and I parted ways as I returned to the hotel after my first full day in revolutionary Cairo.
Three days later, Mubarak stepped down.

Islam and the Egyptian Uprising

Originally published on Inside Islam, February 9, 2011:

Mainstream news outlets have been making a lot of noise about the Muslim Brotherhood and  the possible Islamist threat coming from the impending downfall of President Mubarak’s 30 year-old regime. This point is generally overstressed — although the Muslim Brotherhood is a large opposition group and has been supporting the protests in the past few days, they were not the progenitors of the uprising and are not the current leaders of it.



Video: Alexander Hanna


Much more ubiquitous and important for the protests, however, has been the regular sort of Islamic practice and worship to which Egyptians are generally accustomed. For every member of the Muslim Brotherhood protesting in Tahrir Square, there’s surely over a thousand more Egyptians who are nonpartisan worshippers.  They are in the middle of the square, praying en masse, or sitting under the Army’s tanks, making sure they don’t move to force protesters out.


Tahrir Square has become a microcosm of Egyptian life, and accordingly, it has all the “publicality” of Islam, with calls to prayer on megaphones and large groups of men kneeling together, on prayer mats or Egyptian flags.


Islam is extremely public here, the merging of the sacred and the mundane, the unexpected and the carnavalesque, which Tahrir has become.








Broken Façade of Fear

Originally published in Dawn, February 3, 2011:

MORE than a week after it began, the Egyptian uprising isn’t showing any signs of abating. Members of the Central Security Forces were disarmed when attempting to engage demonstrators and replaced by committees of citizens directing traffic and safeguarding neighbourhoods.

The headquarters of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) have gone up in flames in most major cities, left to burn by the people and a seemingly sympathetic army. Egyptians have set up semi-permanent camps in the aptly named Tahrir (Liberation) Square and become its guardians — even its cleaners, brooms in hand.

They now wait for their single demand to be met: that Mubarak and his cronies pack their bags and join the deposed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the former president of Tunisia, in Jeddah.

To casual observers of Egypt, this seemed to come out of nowhere. Three months ago parliamentary elections were held in which the NDP won over 93 per cent of the vote. Of course the elections were rigged, but complacency followed. There was no outcry, no mass protest, no call to expel Mubarak or stage a repeat of Iran’s 2009 Green Movement. Pyramids were still visited, Europeans still vacationed in Sharm El Sheikh.

But then Tunisia happened. The now well-worn narrative of frustrated college graduate Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old who set himself on fire to protest his inability to make a living, set his hometown of Sidi Bouzid alight and with it the rest of the country.

In light of Tunisia’s revolution, the question floating through the Egyptian mind became, ‘If in Tunisia, why not here?’

And why not, when Egypt shared so much of the same tinder, waiting for the spark, that pre-revolution Tunisia had? Both countries enjoy a glut of unemployed or underemployed youth, rising inflation, and strong restrictions on the freedoms of press and assembly. Mubarak plays the political strongman akin to Ben Ali, with their NDP and the Constitutional Democratic Rally, respectively, quashing dissent. Save for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, even the organised political opposition looks similarly weak.

But grievances do not make a revolution. Nor, as many rightly point out, is Egypt the same country as Tunisia. It is the most populous nation in the Arab world and holds a central place in the power configuration between the US and Israel, receiving a nontrivial amount of military aid from the former.

It has put that aid money to use arming its state security forces to the teeth. And, to steal a comparison from The Arabist’s Issandr el-Amrani, Mubarak has the hard-headedness of a gamoosa (water buffalo) as compared to Ben Ali’s vacillations between the carrot and the stick prior to his ouster.

With regard to the political opposition, trade unions found a strong leadership position in the street protests of Tunisia while the official (essentially government-controlled) Egyptian Trade Union Federation called for member syndicates to actively dissuade its members from protesting.

But perhaps this conversation is moot. In some ways, Egypt didn’t need the flames of Tunisia to light the kindling. It had its own Mohammed Bouazizi in Khaled Said, a 28-year-old beaten to death by state security in a cyber cafe in June 2010. Pictures of his mutilated face were posted widely on blogs and other social media, fuelling the rising outrage against police brutality.

Said became an icon of the Jan 25 demonstrations, with a series of popular cartoons depicting his ubiquitous visage, the Jan25 Twitter hashtag imprinted on his shirt. In one cartoon he’s picking up a malcontent Mubarak by the scruff of his suit jacket; in another, he is yelling “Wake up Egypt!” to a distraught Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, who is kneeling and covering his ears.

But Tunisia was needed, dearly needed. Tunisia was the first to throw off the shackles of fear, to pierce the facade of reprisal in the face of dissent. Tunisia was the necessary leap of faith that a popular uprising could remove decades of oppression.

And almost overnight, the Egyptian veil of fear has been lifted. Activists against police brutality gathering under the name of Said and members of the April 6 Youth Movement called for a ‘Day of Anger’ on Jan 25 — a date usually celebrated to commemorate a 1952 British attack on a police station that helped precipitate Nasser’s revolution — to protest police brutality, corruption, poverty and unemployment. Since then, protests in the capital, which in the past only gathered hundreds of the same activists, have brought out in droves thousands who would otherwise not have come out.

On the night of the 25th demonstrators occupied Tahrir Square, establishing a carnival atmosphere in which they planned to camp, chanting “we want the regime out” and drafting a loose consensus statement before state security dispersed them with tear gas in the early morning hours.

Over the past several days, Egyptians have demonstrated in the face of police crackdowns, plain-clothes police acting as agent provocateurs and military shows of intimidation and the outright gunning down of unarmed civilians. The demonstrations have only escalated, resulting in a (largely ignored) military-enforced curfew and a near-complete shutdown of the Internet and SMS and mobile-phone services.

Despite the lack of order, uncertainty, restrictions on communication, violence and destruction, Egyptians are reporting that they are finally feeling free. It has now become a waiting match between the people and the aging Mubarak, who almost seems completely oblivious to their demands.

The ‘concession’ of appointing spy chief Omar Suleiman as vice president and Minister of Aviation Ahmed Shafik as prime minister hasn’t appeased anyone but American cable news outlets obsessed with the idiosyncrasies of personality. But this is all shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

Tunisia has been a source of awe and inspiration, and a fair warning to regimes that believe they can continue their programmes of intimidation and repression. Already similar days of anger have been planned for Sudan, Yemen, Algeria, Syria and Bahrain. Let’s hope the Saudis have enough room to accommodate several more dictators.

Egypt Feigns Ignorance

Originally published in Dawn, January 17, 2011:

ON January 11, a man boarded a train in the city of Salamut in Upper Egypt. He reportedly checked that the passengers had crucifixes tattooed on their right wrists, a customary practice of Coptic Christians. Allegedly uttering “there is no god but Allah”, he began firing indiscriminately upon passengers, killing a 71-year-old man and wounding six others.

Police found the man near his home shortly after and identified him as an off-duty police officer. He claims he was annoyed and did not know what had gotten into him.

There are several ways to read this tragedy. The first is obvious — as a tale of mental instability, of a loose cannon whose frustration, paired with a pistol, caught some unfortunate people in its crossfire. This will undoubtedly be the story told by Interior Minister Habib el-Adly and the state security apparatus.

The other narrative is that of a religious conspiracy in which the police deprive Copts of protection and attack them whenever and wherever possible. I venture that this is the interpretation of demonstrators who clashed with police outside the hospital where survivors of the attack were being treated.

While the former reading ignores context, the latter overstates the case against the police. Instead, I would risk a more symbolic and foundational reading of this attack. The officer, a representative of law and order, had seemingly free reign to attack his targets and then retreat home. This wasn`t because of religious fervour or police orchestration, but because of a culture of tension between Egypt`s Muslim majority and Coptic Christian minority and of the political milieu that has fostered it. The country`s leadership and intellectuals have not only been complicit in the growing polarisation, but are also in denial of its existence.

There isn`t much of a chance we would be framing this event as such if it were not for the grotesque attack on Two Saints` Church in Alexandria on New Year`s Eve in which a car bomb exploded as the congregation was exiting, killing 23 people and wounding 100 others. The sad truth is that this was only the largest of what has been a constant stream of attacks on Coptic Christians — over 120 since 1972, according to Karima Kamal writing in newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm .

The official line has been an outright rejection of the notion that Egyptians could perform such an attack. President Hosni Mubarak responded quickly, blaming foreign extremist elements for directly attacking the church or planting the seeds of radical Islamist thought in the minds of frustrated and malleable, but otherwise pious, Egyptian Muslim youth. Some commentators pointed to the perennial bogeyman, Israel`s Mossad (who, coincidentally, are also behind shark attacks in Sharm al-Sheikh and have been busy outfitting vultures with equipment to spy on Saudi Arabia). Mariz Tadros writes in Middle East Report that some prominent political commentators have even suggested that Coptic organisations in the diaspora may have orchestrated the attack in order to “instigate sectarianism”.

Simply put, the mainstream line is that foreign hands are behind these attacks. Any proud Egyptian citizen could not have done this. But unfortunately the tension is real and palpable, and cannot be papered over with discourses about citizenship and nationalism. The Copts, especially, don`t seem to have much reason to be patriots when the state short-changes Egypt`s largest religious minority.

A telling example is the double standard concerning construction and zoning permission for religious buildings. Members of a church in the slum of al-Umraniyya were assaulted and arrested for attempting to turn a community centre into an prayer room, all because the building did not have permits to serve as a place of worship. Or take the construction of a new church dome in the governorate of Beni Suef, which was halted for not having construction permits only days after the Alexandria bombing. At the same time, many buildings that serve as mosques do not have permits and enjoy no interference from state security.Even in the wake of the New Year`s Eve bombing, Coptic youth demonstrating in a nonviolent manner were cordoned off and eventually beaten in a predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Cairo by overwhelming numbers of state security forces dressed to the nines in riot gear. This after several weeks in late 2010 in which Salafi Islamists protested outside churches, calling for the release of two women — wives of priests — who had allegedly converted to Islam and were being held prisoner. A confrontation between demonstrators and police at events like the latter are, however, unheard of. Note also the contrast between chants at the two protests: the Copts yelling, “with our blood and souls, we will defend the Cross”, compared to death threats against Pope Shenouda III and other prominent Coptic clergy.

This is not to absolve the Copts of aggravating tensions. Recently the high-ranking Bishop Bishoy accused Muslims of being “visitors” in the country. Others, especially in the diaspora, have bought into the American neoconservative narrative that a creeping Islamism will soon take over the world and implement Islamic law.

The point, however, is that the double standard of treatment has resulted in two forces tugging at the religion rope — the marginalisation of Copts on the one hand, and a home-grown Islamisation on the other. So what is to be done?

As the 12-step programme of addiction recovery would have it, first Egypt needs to admit that it has a problem. A policy of denial will not slow or stop the growing polarisation of the nation`s religious communities. The government can only accuse foreign hands for so long. Intellectuals, moderate Muslims and secular opposition leaders cannot wax poetic about the virtues of national unity without addressing the divisive elephant in the room. The Alexandria bombing is a stark reminder of what is, but it can also serve to illuminate what ought to be. Before the light dims, Egypt`s leaders should look closely and earnestly at the fissures its brightness reveals.

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