Dispatches From Cairo: Revolution One Year Later
We asked Lauren Unger-Geoffroy, an international artist who lives in Cairo, to share her perspective of life in Egypt after the revolution. In this entry, she writes about a subdued Egypt marking the first anniversary of the revolution.
CAIRO — Sunday was the first day of voting for the upper house of the Egyptian parliament. Only 2 percent of those eligible voted, very different from the enthusiastic post-revolutionary 70 percent voter turnout for the lower house, a December election that gave a landslide majority to Islamist parties. Friends of mine said they were the only ones in the voting station.
People in my neighborhood who voted for the first time in the last round told me they did not even know what the upper house of parliament was. They had never heard of any of the candidates, and they had done it once, that’s enough, they didn’t care, it didn’t matter.
Jan. 25 was the anniversary of the revolution and was officially declared National Day or Revolution Day, replacing the previous National Revolution Day, July 23. The celebration brought hundreds of thousands from all walks of life to Tahrir Square. Many arrived as part of marches from all areas of Cairo, crowds so vast they seemed without end. I and some friends took the metro, in which a group of young people entertained the crowded car with revolutionary rap; all the passengers joined in on the refrains. We arrived to a mass of people so densely packed we could barely advance toward the square. There was a predominance of bearded Salafi men and covered women, many with small children on their shoulders.
As the newly elected parliament met for the first time, in the square Quranic verses were recited from stages and religious music was played between confident, self-praising affirmations of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi members who now dominated the platforms of Tahrir as well as the parliamentary meeting itself. In fact the overall tone of Tahrir Square on Jan. 25 was religious, calm and … somehow disappointingly … passive.
Sure, in the crunching pack there were protesters with banners and signs about the revolution’s martyrs, and some held placards alleging collaboration between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). There was an obelisk bearing the martyrs’ names, Guy Fawkes masks were worn on the backs of some heads, and there was sporadic anti-military chanting, but all this was overshadowed by the enthusiasm-calming sermons of Islamic positivity. Faces generally were happy, though not infused with revolutionary fervor, and the pushing and joggling caused visible signs of irritation among the good people here. Many had not been here last year when the jostling was a bubbling of potential, and uniting purpose, when all faces were filled with light and amazement and brotherhood. Last week, it was as if the people had accepted that the revolution’s goal had been achieved and that they could once again relinquish the responsibility for their existence to the care of Allah through the auspices of the Islamic political parties. The voices crying “This is not a celebration — we are mourning our dead!” and “MB [Muslim Brotherhood] sold us to the SCAF!” were no match for the superior sound systems of the self-congratulatory MB and Salafi speakers.
We left with a feeling of disappointment.
One of the few disturbing stories of the day concerned a girl who revealed her blond hair — like a beacon to moths in the night crowd of hundreds of thousands of sexually frustrated Egyptian men, some of them exposed to sexual images only through foreign movies and Western porn. She was attacked, and several men reportedly were hurt in saving her from the worst of the groping swarm.
U.S. and European embassies all have sent out warnings to foreign visitors, and the newspapers have reported earlier incidents of this sort, but some Western women still fail to do what is necessary to protect themselves in Egypt.
Sexual assault is a big problem for women here. The Egyptian people are horrified by the abuse that some men inflict, but there are divisions over how to deal with the issue. The Salafi [fundamentalist] idea is to restrict the behavior, clothing and activities of all domestic and foreign women, as in Saudi Arabia, where women are obligated to cover themselves almost completely so as not to excite the sexual urge in men. Pornography and other images of uncovered women are illegal, as is alcohol. All stores, restaurants, schools and cafes have separate areas for men and women. Bathing suits cover from neck to wrist to ankle, and beaches for men and women are separate, with high walls between.
Tourism, a major source of revenue for Egypt, floundering since the revolution, would collapse further if the Saudi approach was implemented in this nation. Also, the majority of the population, even if they do generally observe Shariah law, would not like to have their personal lives patrolled by the “morality police.”
One proposal for easing the problem is to make the financial requirements for marriage less onerous, so that young people can marry and legitimately engage in connubial relations, thus eliminating a good part of the sexual frustration.
Outcries against isolated crimes since the beginning of the revolution have created the illusion of post-revolutionary anarchy, which is not the case. Crime has not increased. Public crowds are greater now, and as the opportunity for sexual harassment presents itself, these crimes will happen in larger numbers. Last week my friend Sayed’s uncle, who owns a large factory in his village, was kidnapped and held for ransom for five days. The whole family participated in the ransom gathering and exchange. I had not understood why they had been so inaccessible to me during those days and finally Sayed told me: He had not wanted me to think this was something caused by the revolution. “Kidnap and ransom is an old crime here. It happens often … a practice since ancient times. It’s a tribal thing, a Bedouin thing,” he said. A few days later, it was forgotten and life was back to normal.
Adaptability is the first element of survival. In the building where I live there has been no running water for a week. It has been off and on all year. Patches don’t hold on the jumble of rusting and broken pipes climbing the side of the building. This could be fixed efficiently and definitively but would require organization and investment, and the attitude of the owners is to leave the large problems to Allah.
The building was elegant and well constructed in the 1940s; it has a Schindler elevator, a marble staircase. I saw a photo of how it was then, and it was impressive. Cairo was called the Paris on the Nile. It is phenomenal how the people and their attitudes have changed since the revolution of 1953. The pride of ownership was crushed somewhere between the period of Soviet influence and the Islamist rebellion … and further was ground into the dust by corruption and growing socioeconomic disparity.
Though the present ongoing, glorious revolution is an inspiration to the world — an indication of the power of mobilization of the street through modern social networking and a testament to the strength of unity — it is necessary to note that the nation has much contemporary experience of effective, if sacrificial, revolt by unified underprivileged people, students and intellectuals. And there were many other such moments in the annals of Egypt’s long history.
The Egyptian “Bread Riots” of 1977 saw as many as 79 people killed and 800 wounded when the poor revolted against Anwar Sadat’s cancellation of subsidies for basic foods. Then as now, rallying the people with a good chanted slogan was a specialty. “Hero of the Crossing, where is our breakfast?” was one. The uprising succeeded despite the deployment of the army against the protesters, ending with the reinstitution of the subsidies. Some of the oldsters who participated in that uprising can be found demonstrating in Tahrir Square now.
The first true social network-powered Egyptian rebellion came in April of 2008, over low wages and rising food costs. Using the Internet and cellphones, the April 6 Youth Movement, a group on Facebook, attracted more than 64,000 members and later became one of the major parties of the revolution of 2011 (though it was discredited for receiving funding and instruction in revolution technique from foreign sources).
The 2008 strike failed. In the past, authorities always gave orders to break demonstrations forcefully. Strikes were illegal in the Egypt under its “emergency law” (finally lifted Jan. 25, 2012).
Conditions were different in 2011. After the protest of 2008, the continued decline of the level of living and the mounting frustration with the blatant exploitation of the nation’s resources by the Mubarak entourage left the people in a gray rage with nothing to lose. Access to Facebook and mobile phones was in the hands of all the people. Anger was brewing. Then there was Twitter and … Tunisia.
Now Egyptians are changing yet again. Gains have been made, even if the whole picture still remains obscure. Thousands of political prisoners have been released, virginity tests are officially outlawed, emergency law has been lifted, and there are no more military trials. All of this is to be tested, but the foundation is set and growing stronger. Perhaps the infrastructure will take a great deal of effort and time to repair, but something has irrevocably changed in the Egyptian social horizon and demographic. The people have rediscovered their nationalistic pride and they have discovered the strength of a united voice and the power of mobilization. All the social persuasions have come out to expose their divergent nuances to the light. And of course there is now a new political, commercial and social demographic — the revolutionaries.
Revolutionaries come in many varieties, as the demonstrations last Friday, anniversary of the “Friday of Rage,” illustrated to the surprise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Believing themselves the inheritors of Tahrir Square, the MB speakers continued their program of chanting “One hand! We are the people!” interspersed with Quranic readings and religious speeches.
I stayed in my neighborhood for the noon prayers to hear our imam’s dramatic urging of the people to keep the revolution alive, to keep the martyrs’ memory alive, to not go to sleep in the arms of the military of Mubarak on the anniversary of the day our sons and brothers began to be murdered. As he drew to a close, the roar of a march carried across the area, and then I watched from my window as thousands poured, chanting, across the bridge, like the other marches from all the Cairo districts headed to Tahrir, filling it to overflowing after the noon prayer. The Tahrir Friday noon prayer from Al Azhar mosque, observed by thousands in the square, urged the people on. “Our right is to dictate the decisions of the revolution,” the imam Muzhar Shahine proclaimed from the “revolutionaries” stage, not the MB stage, as the crowd cried “Allahu akhbar” (“God is great.)”
He continued with the people’s list of demands. State media must be purged, there must be a constitution that is “shared by all political parties and that gives rights for all of Egypt’s children,” and Christians must be given the same rights as Muslims. He cried out to responding chants, “A year later, has state security really been dissolved? Has our land been freed?”
Afterward, as the Muslim Brotherhood started to once again take over the center stages and the sound space of the square, blasting religious doctrine, there was a surprise to many, mostly to the MB. The people began to shout down the fundamentalists. “Hey Brotherhood, hey Brotherhood! No Shariah in the square! Get out!” And “Go out and read the Quran to the SCAF!” “This is the revolution’s square! You are not the revolution!” “We want freedom! You want power!” “The Brotherhood deals with [Field Marshal] Tantawi!” People yelled at the stage, which was protected by handholding MB security people. Some in the crowd held up their shoes, a heavy insult. The speaker begged, “Brothers, don’t do this! We are the people! One hand! … We want civilian government.” Then religious music was turned up in order to calm the chanting. The crowd chanted louder, some scuffling broke out.
Meanwhile, in nearby areas thousands occupied the sites of violent martyrdom like Mohamed Mahmoud Street; some demonstrated at Maspero, the site of the horrible and shamelessly denied massacre of Copts and the home of Egyptian National Television, source of propaganda and media manipulation. There were projections of the film “Liars” on the side of a building. Protesters chanted — and an announcement came through that the film would be shown on national TV! And guests from the revolution were to be invited on shows! The shift has begun.
* * *
I still do not have running water most days in my apartment. Air, water and land pollution plagues the city, and the people are as yet unaware of the advantages and mechanisms of waste management and industrial rigor. Egyptians are in ignorance of what goes on behind the opaque curtain of government, and of the extent of the material wealth of this nation and how it is used and what the government does exactly. There are still vestiges of primitive behavior and custom marbled through this huge population, which also contains enough brilliant, talented, forward-thinking and pure-hearted men and women to lead a global phenomenon mobilizing millions of diametrically opposed social strata in an explosion of creative potential and hope that inspires and worries the world as it stumbles in its newness.
The taxi driver whose brother owns the shoe store downstairs from my apartment was not voting Sunday and gave me a ride to the hospital.
After the long weekend of revolution participation here, I had to pay 13 Egyptian pounds — the equivalent of three U.S. dollars — to have an X-ray of my stress-fractured ankle. The hospital was part of a labyrinthine and crowded complex, and I had to ask directions repeatedly. But eventually a cast and a containment brace were put on my ankle, all for the cost of the equivalent of an additional 45 U.S. dollars. I tsk-tsked and said to the young doctor, “That is expensive! Much more than last year.” He replied apologetically, “Yes, I know, I am sorry, but now we are using some American products.”
I did not mention that these American products would cost at least 300 times more in the U.S. than they cost here, or that in America I would have to pay $600 to health insurance extortion every single month for life in order to afford medical treatment. As I limped back to the taxi, accompanied by the typical sympathy, offers of help and well-wishing of strangers, I reflected on the strange chasm of values, self-interest, the evils of capitalism, human decency, pragmatism, social unity, and the vacuum of understanding into which can rush … anything.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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