It has mostly been my words so far and after a long detailed email from my oldest daughter I wanted readers to get her perceptions. It is a longer posting than normal but with 16 days to catch up on it’s understandable. For those of you just tuning in: Annie is 25 years old and finishing up her masters degree in Refugee and Migration Studies at the American University of Cairo. She had been demonstrating until Tuesday a week ago when violence broke out with pro-government protesters.
The weather seems to be divinely sanctioned to match people’s spirits. Today it was sunny and beautiful. Last night, Wael Ghonim, who is an Egyptian Google exec and a founder of the Facebook group that started this all, was released after twelve days of solitary confinement. Within two hours of his release, he was interviewed on the state television channel Dream, and most people today are crediting his humble, emotional interview with rejuvenating the movement today. This morning I moved back downtown from Dokki, a neighborhood right across the river. I realize that choosing to live in the epicenter of all this is not the most responsible I’ve ever been, but I’ve laid low for a week. I’m ready for my own space again, and there is something that feels very disconnected in Dokki, no matter how much I refresh Twitter.
My apartment is a one-bedroom right around the corner from the Ministry of Interior, a few minutes’ walk east of Tahrir. (When choosing real estate, I have always been a LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION kind of girl, but never paused to consider LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION IN THE EVENT OF POPULAR UPRISING.) The building is full of foreigners (I have friends on every floor, and two of my best friends live around the corner), and has traditionally been surrounded by Mukhabarat (Mubarak’s secret police). It’s really easy to spot them. They’re built like linebackers and wear slacks and sportcoats, aviators, carry walkie-talkies. They’re creepy but you get used to them, and hope that they don’t know so much about your personal ties to the Egyptian Left (they do, of course). Now that I’ve seen them in action, beating old men, striking fear into protesters’ hearts when the riot police aren’t enough, sitting on deserted street corners with their bats and chains waiting for an in to beat the hell out of anyone, I’m terrified of them. The best part about the military takeover of the Ministry (it’s volatile and full of weapons. Probably torture chambers, too) is that instead of Mukhabarat and police surrounding my building, there are three tanks and soldiers who check my ID sporadically. If they so much as give me a hard time, my bowab Rabia comes out and escorts me into the building. The soldiers are unanimously more well-liked than the police, and even though I have too many qualms to name about the military, I like them better too. After living in this country, the police establishment in general elicits a visceral reaction. I don’t like them. I don’t think anyone needs them.
In a perfect world, we’d be doing like we’re doing right now, with localized gangs taking shifts and protecting their streets from looters. If there’s one thing I can say I know after all this, it’s that vigilante justice is a powerful and underrated Thing, and that maybe people should reconsider their feelings about it. I feel safer with the police off the streets. Like every other establishment this regime has upheld, they’re deeply corrupt and liable to disappoint.
Up until last week, even post-mass-evacuation (with regards to that, I maintain that I would rather get tear-gassed again then wait for twelve hours at the airport for a flight that I have to pay the US government back for), I had never felt unsafe because of my passport. Since Omar Suleiman‘s statements on state TV about the foreign elements behind the protests (who knew that Iran, Israel, Hezbollah, the United States, AND Hamas were in cahoots? We’re all such good friends!) there has been a backlash against foreigners and journalists, which left me housebound for a period of time, but I’ve since (wo)manned up and realized that even in the event that I do get detained (the likelihood of which I won’t pussy-foot around: yes, I might get detained, but, yes, it will be okay), I’m a small enough figure in this huge moment that I won’t be troubled. I’m waiting for state security to make the rounds and knock on my door, but my neighbors have said they haven’t stopped by yet, and they might not. Like I said, they know everything about me anyway. Should they knock on my door, my strategy is to talk to my cats a lot.
A few people have coined “The People’s Republic of Tahrir” now, but I will jump on that bandwagon because I think it’s apt. I walk two blocks and, after passing through a civilian checkpoint where volunteer girls who are younger than me apologetically check my ID (“We just need to make sure you’re not Israeli”) and my bag (“Is there anything sharp in here?”) I’m in an autonomous zone where the joy and bravery and freedom are contagious. I have yet to enter Tahrir in this state without crying. There are families there, and teens, and they’re violating curfew (which, by the way: whose idiotic idea was it to give Egyptians a curfew that starts before 2 a.m? Some dumb idiot, that’s who), and there are vendors selling flags and food and tea. There have been pop concerts there, and the commitment to peaceful demonstration is such that today a former Mubarak crony entered the square, was greeted with boos, and then promptly apologized to and hugged. It’s so forgiving. After being subject to sexual harassment on a daily basis for almost two years, the amount of times I have been groped or cat-called in the square is exactly nil. It’s as though the shabaab who used to hollar at me have found a new outlet for their frustration.
My favorite theorist Giorgio Agamben writes about what he calls a coming community in his book, titled the same, and, in layman’s terms, this refers to a community that is not based on common identity, or any commonality at all, but rather on difference. It’s in this limbo that a new, positive imagining of the political can arrive. And while this space has one commonality (“We’re all Egyptian,” though I’ll save the citizenship and nation-state talk for another day), being Egyptian is really it. A lot of media has already touched on the secular, the religious, the Christian, the Muslim, the male, the female, all coming together in this moment, but it’s worth noting, because it’s not an over-hyped statement. It’s true, and it’s something that I don’t think I could have envisioned prior to January 25th. They have all had enough of being denied their rights, and now they’re claiming them. This is what being political is supposed to look like.
Today the People’s Republic expanded. I was walking to Kelsy’s house (the combination of military and civilian checkpoints make my fifteen-minute walk more like half an hour now) and as I was rerouted down Sharia Magles al-Shaab (where Parliament is located) I was greeted by a roar, and around 600 protesters, professors from Cairo University, marched down the street, which has been previously military occupied. I walked down Magles al-Shaab three times today, and each time the crowds were bigger. I’ve just returned from there, and they’ve begun setting up tents. It was 9:30 when I left, an hour-and-a-half past curfew, and there were still young dudes and families there. I ran into a friend who’s been detained twice so far (the only reason he’s out is because the second time, someone set fire to the prison. He had to get his handcuffs filed off!) and he was planning on spending the night. The things I’ve seen my friends brave in the past two weeks are astounding. Even the most politically apathetic have begun camping out. A lot of them have been detained, or had near encounters with the police, and even in the wake of this, and everything that prison in Egypt stands for, they’ve kept it up. It’s astonishing, and also embarrassing. I’m not about to say that the American administration is remotely as cruel as the Mubarak regime has been, but we have commonalities: a skyrocketing unemployment rate, a great deal of unemployed college graduates, powerful big business lobbies, expansive intelligence agencies. These are all things that we ought to be incredibly dissatisfied by, and yet we’re comfortable enough that we put up with them, and now more than ever I’m convinced that we shouldn’t.
Again and again, strangers I meet smile at me (they have no reason to smile while my government hems and haws and backs Omar Suleiman, who is ostensibly far worse than Mubarak) and ask me to tell everyone I know the truth. So, this is the truth, as I know it: I think because of geostrategic interest and powerful business lobbies, pressuring the US government is an uphill battle, but it’s well worth it. I’m not sure of the best course of action in doing your part to make this a revolution (as opposed to a revolt that is crushed), except to keep it in the national conversation. If your local media isn’t writing about this, they should be. If you’re in a city with an Egyptian consulate or embassy, consider making a show of solidarity (I know a lot of you already have. Do I have the best friends in the world or what?). I recently read something that I think ought to be considered, which is that the US discourse on the Middle East is already transforming. It is ceasing to be an Islamophobic propaganda machine and is stopping to really reconsider what democracy is and how it should happen. This much I know: certainly not with the barrel of a gun.
With that, love to all. I’m safe and sound and haven’t heard any gunshots yet (insha’allah), although sometimes gunshots are just a sign that the neighborhood gang has caught a looter, so they’re not even always bad!