Cairo – While much of the western media repeats talking points like “allowing President Mubarak to leave office with dignity” and “the orderly transition of power,” the brutal regime that he has presided over and that the US has funded for the last 30 years, is skillfully attempting to reassert its power in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt. The police, who were ordered to open the prisons and then told to go home and protect their families, are slowly making their way back on to the streets of the cities they abandoned almost two weeks ago. The feared mukhabarat, the secret police, whose number runs into the thousands, have also returned and are again practicing their well-honed skills of terror, torture, infiltration and co-option. While thousands of Egyptians continue to mass in Tahrir Square demanding the end of the Mubarak regime, his government is doing everything it can to retain its grip on power. State-run television continues to air largely nonsensical claims that the protesters are simultaneously backed by Israel, Iran and various Western interests that are determined to destroy Egypt. In urban areas like Cairo and Alexandria, the propaganda seems to be having little effect as the numbers in Tahrir Square continue to grow; however, in rural areas and in some of the suburbs surrounding Cairo, many residents, who are suffering from the economic effects caused by the uprising, are questioning the protesters’ aims now that the government has offered concessions.
I arrived in Cairo a week before the protests began, and have watched what many are calling the Egyptian revolution develop and grow from a few thousand embattled protesters in Tahrir Square to the throngs of Egyptian men, women and children who filled the square on subsequent days. It seems like months ago rather than slightly more than two weeks, that I stood on the Sixth of October bridge on what was dubbed the “Friday of Anger” and watched the protesters face down ranks of riot police after Friday prayers. The police fired countless canisters of tear gas, proudly stamped with “made in the USA,” at the protesters, often aiming for individual protesters rather than firing above the crowds. A young woman, who was standing a few feet from me, was hit in the head with one of the canisters as she defiantly waved an Egyptian flag and chanted, “leave Mubarak, leave.” Despite the gash in her forehead that was gushing blood, she tried to stand and continue waving her flag before she passed out and was carried off to a stopped car. Scenes like this have played out across Egypt in the past 13 days. As with any revolution and with any war, there have been countless acts of extraordinary bravery and depravity.
In some respects, the last three weeks have been reminiscent of some kind of fast-forward version of the events detailed in George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia.” With the withdrawal of the police and the release of thousands of prisoners, residents of Cairo were forced to quickly organize neighborhood watches to try to fend off looters and released prisoners, many of which were led and organized by members of the secret police. Men armed themselves with whatever they could find or made their own weapons – everything from knives taped to broomsticks to cricket bats with nails driven through them. During the day, men took turns directing traffic, often doing a better job than the police they replaced. In the area of Cairo in which I live, I watched as wealthy, young women in designer clothes and heels donned rubber gloves and went about the streets sweeping up the trash. Given the fact that the people who collect the trash in Egypt are often regarded as almost untouchable, this is remarkable. Despite the considerable damage done by looters throughout Cairo, it is worth remembering that this city has roughly 22 million residents, the majority of whom are poor. It is testament to the strong sense of community and the Egyptians’ ability to organize themselves that far more damage was not done. As I passed through the checkpoints run by the men in my neighborhood, I wondered what Chicago, Los Angeles or New York would look like if all the police left and the jails were opened up.
In Tahrir Square, the protesters have also shown what people can do for themselves. I have been in the square most days and have marveled at how the protesters have kept some order and tried to maintain security by manning the checkpoints that ring the square. The men in charge of security have made their own badges, so that they can identify one another, and conscientiously check the IDs and bags of the people who stream in and out of the square. First aid points have been set up and others are in charge of distributing food, water and blankets to those who are spending the night in the square. It has been truly heartening to watch people organize themselves, and this is most certainly part of what scares the regime here and regimes across the globe, including those that wield power in the US.
As the “liberal” Obama administration ineptly wavers between statements from Vice President Biden that seem to paint Hosni Mubarak as an enlightened, fairly elected ruler to calls for Mubarak to heed the protesters demands and step down, the “conservatives” and their media mouthpieces are busy casting the events in Egypt as an Islamic revolution akin to Iran’s that is to be feared – this despite the fact that the crowds of anti-Mubarak protesters are made up of Egyptians from all social and religious backgrounds, both Christians and Muslims. On most days in the square, one can see among the protesters unveiled women in revealingly tight jeans, women wearing full veils and face coverings, men from poor areas like Shobra, and others who represent the foreign educated bourgeoisie who are as comfortable speaking in French or English as they are in Arabic.
This past Sunday, in stark contrast with the sectarian violence that flared up in Alexandria after the bombing of a Coptic church in early January, hundreds of Muslim men formed a protective barrier around Coptic Christians who were in the square celebrating Sunday mass. On the Friday before this, hundreds of Copts performed the same service for their Muslim brethren as they held their Friday prayers.
It is this kind of unity and the emergent Egyptian nationalism that has policy makers in the US and Israel scared. The US and Israel, in particular, have a long history of suppressing Arab nationalism and secularism in favor of more easily demonized and controllable ideologies like radical Islam.(1) Without threats like radical Islam, the support for regimes like Hosni Mubarak’s becomes much harder to justify as do Israeli actions and policies in Gaza.
For the last 50 years, various US administrations have talked about democracy and free societies while supporting the most brutal regimes imaginable. The US intelligence services have long used the same tactics employed by the Egyptian secret police: infiltration and co-option to make sure that US, Israeli and, most importantly, corporate interests in the region are secure. As US influence in the region and elsewhere in the world wanes, these tactics will become increasingly transparent and less effective.
Yesterday evening in Tahrir Square, as a light rain began to fall, several thousand committed protesters got ready for a cold, damp night. Many have erected tents and lean-tos to protect themselves from the rain and cold. For some of them, this is their second week in the square. Huddled around the campfires, the men discuss the rumors of the arrest of protesters and organizers by state security services that are already rife. A man who tells me his first name is Ahmed, who is from the affluent neighborhood of Mohandassin, explains that he and many of the others are now scared to return to their homes. They are worried that they will be arrested. They know that the government helicopters and spotters positioned on many of the buildings that overlook the square, have been recording everyone. “It is better to die here with my friends in the open than in a cell somewhere,” says Ahmed as he puts another piece of cardboard on the fire.
Around other fires with cups of tea in hand, the men – late at night, there are usually only men in the square – recount the already legend stories of bravery and violence. The battles fought between the anti-Mubarak protesters and the baltageyal, the government sponsored thugs and secret police, already have names such as the Battle of the Museum, the Battle of Talat Harb and the Battle for the Bridge. The events of the last three weeks will continue to be mythologized and, in that way, they will grow and become even more powerful in the minds of many Egyptians.
A pitched battle is being fought between the regime and those demanding democracy and the removal of the current government. For now, it seems that the protesters may have regained the momentum as they show the regime and the world that they can continue to draw ever greater numbers to the square. However, as the state security apparatus regains its balance and spreads its tentacles throughout Egypt yet again, there is sure to be more violence and more battles in the days, weeks and months ahead. More than 300 people have already died fighting for what the founders of the US fought for. Sadly, many more will likely have to die before they achieve what is so beautifully and clearly articulated in the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The many acts of bravery and selflessness that I have witnessed in the last two weeks have made me reflect anew on what is written in these two documents and to reflect on how many of the rights laid out in these documents have already been lost by Americans due to the need to make us “safe” and to fight the “war on terror.” Rather than fearing events in Egypt, Americans should look to Egypt for inspiration and renew their own fight against such pernicious policies as “protest spaces,” indefinite detention, illegal wire taps and state sanctioned terror and torture.
1. See: “Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam,” by Robert Dreyfuss, Metropolitan Books, 2006 (pg. 198-205).