Remembering “The Square”

On Friday night we watched the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Square (Al Midan). This movie captures what happened in Egypt from a few weeks before the momentous ousting of Hosni Mubarak on January 25, 2011 through this past summer.

“Let me tell you how this story began….It began with a group of brave, young Egyptians battling injustice, corruption, poverty.” Ahmed Hassan

Tahrir Square, in the center of Cairo is the place that became the epicenter for all the events leading up to Mubarak’s downfall. It represents to the world the fight for freedom and democracy as hoped and fought for by the Egyptian people. The title of the movie is fitting as nothing captures the spirit of this time more than Tahrir Square.

The movie follows Ahmed – the 20 year old who has known the streets of Cairo since he sold lemons as a little boy and realistically represents the youth of Egypt; Magdy – a family man who identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood and goes to Tahrir Square day after day to watch change happen; and Khalid – a movie star who has been living in England but comes back to Cairo to participate in the change he knows is coming. Initially the movie shows a people united at the ousting of Mubarak, ready for a new day in Egypt. But the story moves forward and divisions arise, an army the people trusted turns on them, hope turns to despair. But Ahmed, Magdy, and Khalid continue coming to Tahrir Square – their differences obvious, their desire to see change united.

The documentary vividly captures the crowds, the masses of people — men, women, and children shouting “Al-Horreya!’ (Freedom!), the tension between the people and the army, talking heads on state-sponsored television. Throughout the film we were immersed in crowds and chaos, anger and joy, hope and despair.

But for us, watching the movie was personal.

Tahrir is a familiar place for all of us from the seven years we lived in Egypt, but it is even more familiar for our daughter. For three years, from September 2009 through September 2012 she lived in Cairo. She was in graduate school at the American University in Cairo and lived just two blocks from Tahrir Square. She has friends and acquaintances featured in the movie and this was her world. It was this I couldn’t get out of my mind on Friday night. These were her friends, this was her neighborhood, whatever was happening on any given day affected her going out, affected where she ate, who she was with. She lived, breathed, slept what I only briefly experienced while visiting her and then watched in a movie. It was a powerful and difficult film to watch.

It has now been three years, and Egypt still faces massive challenges. As we remember this day, 3 years ago, I ask you to read these words of an Egyptian friend from a news email written on January 9:

As we begin 2014 the biggest concern of most Egyptians is whether or not they, individually and as a nation, can afford the price of the new “democracy” which was achieved by our “Revolution”!

In January 2011, when Egyptians in large numbers toppled the government by protesting against the autocratic rule of the Mubarak regime, there was hope that the country would become truly democratic. We dreamed of a nation where everyone could freely express his or her perspectives and opinions and yet also work together in harmonious tolerance.

This dream was quickly crushed when the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) took over the government and imposed what increasingly resembled religious theocracy. When that regime was ousted by popular demand last summer, there was new hope that the dreams we’d had during the Revolution would finally be realized.

Unfortunately, since the dispersal of the MB’s 48 day sit-ins on August 14, 2013, disruption of daily life and violence on the streets has become a normal part of Egyptian life.  We often hear of people wounded or killed in clashes between MB supporters and the police, the army or angry civilians who want to live a normal life. In an attempt to restore peace on the street, the government’s aggressive response to continued MB disruptions sadly seems to create more violence rather than less.

As we prepare for a national referendum on a new Constitution, the violence continues in an attempt to intimidate the general population and scare them from going to the polls on January 14 and 15.

Having just celebrated the birth of the Prince of Peace, Christians in Egypt yearn for that elusive peace in their hearts and in the country as a whole.” from Ramez Atallah 

Tomorrow marks the 3 year anniversary of events that happened on January 25th when the people of Egypt came together to demand more. I’ll end the post with more words from Ramez: “Pray with us to know creative ways to better reflect what the Prince of Peace would say to Egypt.”

I highly recommend the documentary. To watch a preview click on this link: The Square

All photos were taken on our trip to Egypt in December 2011. Gas MaskCairo, Egypt, Islam, MinaretTahrir SquareMore graffitisunset from the roofFriday Tahrir 2Boys with peace signWe three kingsGas mask graffiti 3eyepatch graffiti 2January 25th Revolution

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Egypt – a Call to Pray

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Egypt, Cairo, Minarets

My love for Egypt is no surprise to Communicating Across Boundaries readers. Despite no longer having a vicarious presence in the country through our daughter, we keep up regularly through friends and acquaintances.

As our newsfeeds fill with news from Egypt, it is hard to know what is really going on. With the west condemning Egypt and shaking their heads in despair I am glad to pass on an article written with clarity and wisdom. One of the authors is head of the Bible Society in Egypt and a long time friend of ours.

Here is an excerpt:

“In the past 6 weeks the Muslim Brotherhood has occupied a number of public spaces, to demonstrate for the reinstatement of the former President (currently being held by the army and facing charges related to abuse of power, including substantial material and intelligence support to Hamas). Unlike the peaceful occupation of Tahrir Square by demonstrators in January 2011, and again at the end of June 2013, these Muslim Brotherhood occupations were dominated by calls for violence against the army, the police, the liberals and, specifically, the Coptic Christians in Egypt – all resulting in the violence witnessed on August 14th, when police stations, hospitals, private and public property were destroyed. Many Christian churches (at least 40 so far), homes and businesses were also attacked, as well as a monastery, three religious societies, three key bookshops belonging to the Bible Society in Egypt, three Christian schools and an orphanage.”

You can read the entire article here.

He ends the piece with a Call to Pray.

Prayers for Egypt:

  • The current violence will end soon.
  • The effective rule of law and order will be re-established for the benefit of all citizens.
  • There will be effective protection of church and other property against attacks by extremists.
  • Egypt will be governed for the benefit of all its citizens, with people of different persuasions able to live alongside one another peaceably.
  • Egyptian Christians will have opportunity to play an increasingly prominent and effective role in addressing the needs of all Egyptians and helping to bring healing and reconciliation in the country.

Anniversary of Egypt’s “Uprising” – 18 Days of Change

A year ago today was the beginning of historic change in the country of Egypt. To mark the anniversary a holiday has been declared with celebrations planned throughout the country. As early as Tuesday tents were set up in Tahrir Square, the central square area that was the seat of last year’s historic events. Below is a summary of major events from last year’s 18 days of change.

Many in the west are unaware of the brutal beating and murder of a young Egyptian from the port city of Alexandria at the hands of a corrupt and brutal police force. The man’s name was Khaled Said and he was murdered because he had obtained information on police corruption in the city and was going to expose it. Khaled Said became a symbol of brutal oppression without a voice. Underground activists began to circulate information about his death through social media, specifically Facebook and a movement was born.

A “Day of Rage”, largely orchestrated through social media, was proclaimed on January 25th, 2011 and demonstrations took place throughout the country. What most people expected to be a one day event sparked further protests that refused to be silenced. Two days later Facebook and Twitter were blocked, inhibiting widespread organization through social networking. A day later and Egypt went silent to the world as all internet and mobile phone services were blocked. During this time I well remember trying to reach my daughter without success.  Sitting at his desk one day my husband received a phone call from an unknown number with the first digits of 202. He knew this was the area code for Washington DC, but it was also the country and city code for Cairo, Egypt. As he picked up the phone and said hello, the voice on the other end said “This is the State Department. I would like to speak to the mother or father of Annie Gardner” (pause) his heart stopped for a long second. “This is he”. “We’re calling to tell you that your daughter has contacted the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and that she is safe and sound!” He could have strangled them through the phone line until they begged for mercy. While the relief we felt to hear of her safety was great, the method could have been a bit less dramatic.

The initially peaceful demonstrations turned violent on January 28th as street battles erupted. Thugs allegedly hired by the government brought on a dimension of violence that resulted in death and injury to many.

Four days after the initial “Day of Rage” former President Mubarak reconfigured his cabinet and a vice-president was appointed for the first time in 30 years.

February 4th was termed “Friday of Departure” where hundreds of thousands come to Tahrir to take part in peaceful protests with repeated calls for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. Protests were not just confined to Cairo but occurred throughout the country. On February 7th  Wael Ghoneim, an Egyptian Google employee and founder of the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” was released after 12 days of interrogation. His appearance on television stimulated further action and cries for change. On February 11th, 18 days after the original “Day of Rage” Mubarak stepped down. The following day and night massive celebrations were held throughout Egypt. Entire families converged on Tahrir Square celebrating a new day for the country of Egypt while the world looked on amazed.  My daughter sent us the message “Tomorrow they’ll rebuild, but today they’re going to party” a perfect description for the time of celebration.

So what now, a year to the day later? Through conversations we had with people in Egypt during our recent trip we heard frustration that the army has too much power and control and the deeply hoped for change has not come. Economically there is huge frustration as younger people face massive unemployment. The first free election in recent history has taken place and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party took a majority of the seats of the lower parliament. There was expectation that a civilian government would be in place by this time and the fact that this is not the case is cause for anger and concern. There is an overall fatigue and feeling that one can still get arrested for speaking out in public against the ruling military.

And through all this we continue to see that Egyptians are a humble resilient people. The passion that has been shown and the fight for change at the high cost of imprisonment and harm is proof of a strength in character and evidence of a willingness to seek something that will last. And so today should be celebrated with a prayer that hope will continue to thrive and a belief that God will continue to work in Egypt and her people.

I urge you to watch this short video called “Ya Baladi”. It has English subtitles and is a moving look at an Egypt way beyond the media portrayal.

Tahrir Square at 3am, January 25, 2012 courtesy of "We are all Khaled Said"

http://www.newsy.com/embed-video/10820/

Tea Party in America~Brotherhood in Egypt

Bloggers Note: This is the second  segment taken from a larger piece written by Heather Keaney, a professor at the American University in Cairo and wife of an old friend of ours.  It is used with permission. Titles are created by me, while the content is from Heather. If you are just tuning in, please feel free to read The Battle of Perceptions where you will find out more about Heather.  She brings a great perspective from years of living in Cairo.

West: Keeping our Fears in Check

It is extremely unlikely that Egypt would end up a radical Islamist state if for no other reason than most Egyptians fear this more than Americans do. This is especially the case for Egypt’s liberal elite and 8 million Christians who are terrified of an Islamist regime taking over. The government knows this and holds this fear, along with the that of chaos, over the people’s heads making it that much harder for opposition to build or unify.

I think the West should prioritize process over outcome. If the Muslim Brotherhood (which is not an extremist group) wins in a free and fair election so be it. The country is 90% Muslim and religiously conservative. It is not for the outside world to decide what is best for Egypt. Egyptians need to decide for themselves. If the institutions and processes are put in place that is the important thing.

Current estimates are that the MB would win a third of the vote in an election. Much of their popularity is based on good

Men praying – Tahrir Square 2.1.11 copyright Christina Rizk

organization and social services for the poor. They renounced violence in the 1960s and have been one of the biggest and most consistent organizations calling for greater democracy in Egypt for years. Other opposition groups need to raise their game and actually do something for the millions of Egyptians they are claiming to represent. That is how democracy works. This is why I think the West needs to focus on ensuring a process rather than a particular outcome.

Thus I was frustrated when I heard an interview with Tony Blair a few days back in which he was very cautious about change here and warned against what might happen if the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. It sounded arrogant and imperialistic to me.

Europeans might dread Tea Partiers in America, but it is not their place to try and determine what happens in American politics. Egyptians deserve the same respect.

Indeed I had my own ‘Tony Blair moment’ when our friend Ahmed discouraged us from going to the demonstrations on Tuesday. I thought security concerns, or that the government would be able to manipulate our presence for its own advantage, were exaggerated and I really wanted to be there.

But we are guests here and all day I had to remind myself: it is not about me, or what I want, but about what Egyptians want! They are still trying to figure that out.

“Washington has been very anxious about what’s happening here, but it shouldn’t be. It should be happy. This will reduce terrorism. When people have their voice, they don’t need to explode themselves.” –Mohammed Fouad, an Egyptian software engineer. (from Washington Post, 2/2/11)

Products of Perceptions

Blogger’s Note: What’s in a title? As I hear so many voices in this country speaking to the fear of the brotherhood I decided to look into what other countries think of our very own Tea Party movement, a movement that is gaining more and more attention in American politics.  I was amazed and humored by what I found!  All of the excerpts below are taken from “The Horror, The Horror…and the Pity!”(See Foreign Policy, October 26, 2010 – fascinating article!)

PAKISTAN:“In Dawn‘s telling, the Tea Party has risen in tandem with the “Ground-Zero-inspired Muslim baiting frenzy” and is driven largely by the “bigoted rabble-rouser” Glenn Beck who attacks President Barack Obama as a “closet Muslim.” According to Dawn, the same “predatory instinct” that led Americans to enslave Africans and wipe out Native Americans is “gathering mass, once again,” this time with Muslims as the primary target. (Foreign Policy, October 26, 2010)

CHINA: “The Tea Party will lead to U.S.-China conflict. The government controlled China Dailydescribes the Tea Party as a “polarizing groundswell … based largely on suspicion of Obama’s background, policies and motives.” The movement is blamed for the high level of vitriol directed at incumbents in this election cycle.” “the newspaper sees the movement as a sign of the “US’ inability to find political solutions” to economic problems”

SPANISH SPEAKING WORLD: El Pais wrote. The author refers to the Tea Party as an extremist movement and notes that O’Donnell (for example) is “proudly extremist.” From there, the newspaper warns that “sometimes totalitarianism results from the best intentions and fanaticism grows in the most benign and public settings. The United States is living in one of these moments … in which its values are in conflict with one another.”The Spanish are less mystified and more alarmed. “We don’t know if we feel more profound horror or more profound pity,”

So… I am in no way saying the Muslim Brotherhood is totally benign – what I am saying is that we are all products of our perceptions, and the often strong voices that feed into our perceptions. Even though international media is fearful of the Tea Party movement and perhaps incorrect in their assessments – the Tea Party movement lives on – because  years ago we too had a revolution. And in that spirit, I’ll raise my glass and let the comments begin!

Related Articles:

The Battle of Perception

Blogger’s Note: This segment is taken from a longer piece written by Heather Keaney, a professor at the American University in Cairo and wife of an old friend of ours.  Heather graduated from Westmont College and completed her PhD in medieval Islamic history at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2003. She taught in the Arabic Studies (now Arab and Islamic Civilizations ARIC) department at AUC as a guest lecturer and at the Middle East Studies Program (MESP) in Cairo from 2003-2006. Heather will definitely bring you a different perspective and challenge your view.

Despite being here and talking to lots of people and watching hours of news coverage each day, our predictions of what was going to happen next have been wrong every time.

With that health warning read on if you like!

MEDIA

To start with one thing that has emerged as important to me, that I am not sure if outside media outlets are addressing, is the importance not just of media – but of a divided media contributing to a divided people.

Facebookers and upper and middle class folk who know English and have satellite dishes watch CNN and BBC and Al Jazeera English & Arabic. For everyone else, after the government shut down Al Jazeera Arabic here, unless they watched BBC Arabic they are very likely watching state news. The result is two very different presentations of what is happening. This was very noticeable on Tuesday when international channels were showing the dramatic images of Tahrir Square filled with peaceful partying demonstrators. The government news channels had for days had a camera simply showing the bridges across the Nile with a trickle of traffic and on Tuesday the same camera showed the bridge packed for half a mile and brought to a standstill by demonstrators in Tahrir.

Crowds in Tahrir Square 2.1.11 copyright Christina Rizk

The only images of Tahrir were from ground level and close up never showing more than 10 people in the frame. It would also show Pro-Mubarak demonstrators in similar fashion. So many in Egypt could have had no idea what was really happening in Tahrir, the numbers of people or the atmosphere. Instead the message was that the city was being held hostage and ground to a halt by a few. Similarly yesterday State TV did not show the violence in Tahrir, but a large happy smiley family filled pro-government rally either from earlier in the day or elsewhere in the city.

State TV last night had a woman on claiming to be a member of the 6th April group that helped organize the first day of demonstrations, claiming she had received training in Israel and the US for this ‘operation’ as well as $50,000. Those who know how crazy this is are not watching state TV and those who do watch state TV could easily believe it.

I start with this because this is very much a battle of perception. It is still too early to tell who will win the battle of perception over yesterday’s violence.

As an Australian friend here observed: it is as if Egyptians have been muzzled and now the muzzle has been taken off, but the muscles in their mouth have atrophied and so they don’t know how to speak and it will take time for them to learn to speak coherently. There is the very big risk that the government will muzzle them again before this can happen or that the people will muzzle themselves horrified by the physical violence and verbal arguments that are breaking out all over.

THE WEST

The West is in a very tricky situation I think; it is reaping the harvest of decades of hypocrisy by calling for democracy on the one hand and supporting dictators with the other. Despite this and that teargas canisters have clearly written on them “made in the USA” the anti-government demonstrations and the mood in the country has emphatically not been anti-western or anti-US.

We have felt more looked after than ever and have heard the same from other foreigners. It is the pro-government “demonstrators” who have attacked journalists and shouted anti-US/Western slogans. This is the government trying to blame the demonstrations on outside provocateurs – and it is working.

Blogger’s note: Tomorrow I will feature more of this piece from Heather. I urge you to share this with those you feel would benefit from learning more of what is going on from the ground. Oh and have you seen the You tube video featuring a sing-a-long at Tahrir Square?  Well worth viewing!