Friday, July 12, 2013

Watching events from Tunis

Future posts may be a jarring change for those that follow my blog chiefly for political events. The truth is that I have few updates to provide at this point. I have ended every blog post since my departing from Cairo with the phrase "the Revolution continues without me" and I mean it. After days of turmoil, it appears that the situation in Cairo is stabilizing a bit in spite of continued opposition and demonstrations by supporters of ex-president Mohammad Morsi. The opposition is struggling to form a government and put pressure on the Egyptian Military to transition back to civilian rule. On Thursday, the National Salvation Front, the main grouping of liberal and secular parties, demanded the new Cabinet "be made up from figures who belong to the Jan. 25 Revolution." While I have repeatedly been critical of public praise for the police and military after ousting of Morsi, there are some activists who share my skepticism and are also opposed to the military rule.

While Egyptians are deciding their future, I find myself in La Marsa, a coastal town near the capital, Tunis. It was the old summer capital of pre-colonial Tunisia and is now a popular vacation spot for many wealthy Tunisians. I cannot imagine a place further from the hustle and bustle of Cairo. I am not complaining. Many people save their whole lives in order to steal a few short days in a beach-side town before returning to work. I am lucky enough to spend most of the summer here. However, it is not the location that I would choose at this time. I would rather be witnessing events in Egypt.

We do not always get to choose the path that we walk from day to day. Sometimes it is limited by poverty and lack of options. Right now security concerns, an elite American university and insurance companies are deciding my choices.

 I will continue to write within the limits that are set for me. I am hoping to cover Tunisian politics to the extent it is possible and my life as it is right now. I hope people continue to find my blog informative.

The Revolution continues and I am going to the beach.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bullets and Brides

La Marsa, Tunisia: 8AM

In general, I try to intertwine the personal and political in my writing. I fear that I often fail to strike the right balance in this. There are times that the personal and political seem to be at complete odds with each other. I have tried to highlight these times. Does this point to some larger truth? I do not know.


It has been two days since the military opened fire on demonstrators just after fajr (dawn) prayers. The two accounts remain contradictory. The military claims that the Muslim Brotherhood tried to storm the Republic Guard headquarters by force. Many opposed to the Brotherhood claim that they purposely tried to provoke the military in order to gain sympathy from the international press. In contrast, the Brotherhood maintains that it was premeditated and unprovoked attack. New video has surfaced on the incident but it still does not answer the question of who started the confrontation.

The Muslim Brotherhood has called for a national uprising in response to the massacre, leaving open the possibility that things will escalate even further.

Regardless of who started the conflict, the military showed a reckless disregard for human life, slaughtering over 50 people and injuring hundreds. It now appears that they also targeted journalists during the clash, murdering Ahmed Assem, a photographer for Egypt’s Al-Horia Wa Al-Adala newspaper,  as he filmed from a nearby building.

The video shows a grainy image of a soldier firing from the top of a nearby building. After several shots, the soldier points his riffle at the camera and the screen goes blank, ending the life of Ahmed Assem. An old colleague of mine, Sofia Arias, compared it to the murder of Leonardo Henrichsen by the military in Chile in 1973. He too documented his murderers on film, capturing his death.

When documenting atrocities becomes a death sentence, freedom the press is the first casualty.


On Sunday, my boyfriend of four years flew in from London. He had been studying in Oman for the last
seven weeks. Originally, we had planned to be reunited in Cairo this past weekend. However, the toppling of the Morsi government made that impossible. Instead, he came to Tunisia. Shortly after arriving, we took at walk along the Corniche by the sea in La Marsa, a suburb of Tunis, and he asked me to marry him.

In many ways, this seems like frightfully romantic story: political conflict, a coup, evacuation and our final union. In other ways, it seems shocking that life could continue as normal in such circumstance. I now find myself in a picturesque seaside town away from the turmoil in Egypt for the rest of the summer.

Even in Cairo, life continues in spite of the fact that the future remains unclear. This morning an acquaintance posted pictures of her Katb el-Kitab, the signing of her marriage contract that makes a couple officially married in Islamic law. It is similar to the marriage ceremony in our tradition but is usually only attended by the family of the bride and groom.  As the happy couple beamed out from the photos, I was struck at both how immensely hopefully and strange the image was given the circumstance. The simple truth is that life goes on even in times of great turmoil.

The Revolution continues without me...

Monday, July 8, 2013


Today I had planned to writer about my experience staying in Tunis and watching events in Cairo from afar. However, events in Egypt have overtaken this decision.

The Facts: Today the Egyptian military opened fire on a sit-in organized by pro-Morsi forces at the Republican Guard headquarters in the early hours of the morning. During the clash, at least 51 people were killed, with 435 more wounded.

Photos circulating on the Internet of supposed weapons pulled off MB Members. The central items are tear gas canisters fired by the military, not hand grenades.
The details remain hazy. Videos supposedly shot during the clash shows that gunshots came from both sides but the Army did most of the shooting, which accounts for the casualties among the pro-Morsi demonstrators. Currently, there is no clear evidence of who shot first or what sparked the violence. Independent journalist, Sharif Kouddous, has reported that the majority of the victims had gunshot wounds to the head and chest, pointing to the fact that the army targeted the demonstrators with deadly force. In contrast, an Army spokesperson during a press conference this afternoon claimed that an armed group of terrorists attacked Republican Guard headquarters with live ammunition, bird shot and grenades. He went on to argue that "the Armed Forces have not taken any exceptional measures against any protester in the past days."

Accusation are flying fast back and forth. While it may take several days to learn the full truth about these events, the military's account seems to strain credulity. They have shown one video of protesters firing at the military that was clearly filmed in the daytime, not at 4AM in the morning. At the very least, the Egyptian military opened fire on its own citizens with complete disregard for the possible loss of life. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to build sympathy by circulating photos of dead children, which were clearly not from the demonstration. In doing so, they have further damaged their own credibility.

While this event has been horrific enough, the aftermath has been equally disturbing, revealing the deep political divide that is developing in Egypt. Some of the opposition has reached such a level of strident polemics against the Muslim Brotherhood that they are openly defending the violence against the MB, standing firmly on the side of the military. Their hatred towards the MB seems to excuse any act, no matter how brutal and violent. While there is plenty for which to criticize the MB, no one deserves to be gunned down in the street.

One of the other repugnant developments following this massacre is that the police and military are using it to white-wash their own deployable history during the revolution. They are trying to paint the armed wings of the state as the victims in light of this most recent violence rather than as the perpetrators. During the revolution, many Egyptians turned on the police after they brutally suppressed the demonstrations in the name of order, supporting the rule of Hosni Mubarak. The police are utilizing this massacre to try to regain their lost credibility, claiming they are defenders of the revolution as they try to strangle it. In addition, the crimes of the military are equally well known and I have discussed them previously. The army and police standing shoulder to shoulder today seemed to be declaration of war against a society free of fear.

Others in the West seem to comment with glib satisfaction about the violence in Egypt. Celebrating such a loss of life is repugnant regardless of the context. It is even more so when it is used to reinforce some kind of stereotype about the nature of "Arabs."

How does one make sense of such events? On many occasions the great Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, expressed the fact that poetry is necessary in a world devastated by violence and strife. He argued that "against barbarity, poetry can resist only by confirming its attachment to human fragility like a blade of grass growing on a wall while armies march by."

In bleak times like this, I turn to poetry although I am not poet nor do I have a poet's soul. Politics alone seem empty and devoid of answers. The Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani decried the violence of the state in the poem “Footnotes to the Book of Setback":

If I knew I’d come to no harm,
And could see the Sultan,
This is what I would say:
Your wild dogs have torn my clothes
Your spies hound me
Their eyes hound me
Their noses hound me
Their feet hound me
They hound me like Fate
Interrogate my wife
And take down the name of my friends.
When I came close to your walls
And talked about my pains,
Your soldiers beat me with their boots,
Forced me to eat my shoes.
Half of our people are without tongues,
What’s the use of a people without tongues?
Half of our people
Are trapped like ants and rats
Between walls."
If you would forgive my presumption, I would add to Nizar Qabbani's words...
If I knew I’d come to no harm
I’d tell him:
You shot your brothers
Their blood pooled on the pavement
And you called them "terrorists"
You raped and beat your sisters
And you called them "whores"
You silenced your people with iron and steel
You are not fit to rule"

Nizar Qabbani finished the poem:
We want an angry generation
To plough the sky
To blow up history
To blow up our thoughts.
We want a new generation
That does not forgive mistakes
That does not bend.
We want a generation of giants

We now have an angry generation that has finally blown up history, sweeping aside the old tyrants and sultans. However, this upheaval can only create real change if the old despots are not replaced by new ones. This is not the first time that Egyptians have been murdered by their government. I implore those who read this not to forget such tragedies. Right now, I only hope that we can put history back together. The future remains unclear but as always I hope for the best.

The Revolution continues without me...

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Road to Tunis

This is the second part of a two part story on my evacuation from Cairo. To read the first part, check out my archive (Countdown to Evacuation).

Right now, I am sitting drinking a foamy latte at an expensive airport coffee shop while I wait for my flight. The news of events in downtown Cairo is being broadcasted on a flat-screen TV behind me and a large number of people have gathered to watch, commenting loudly to each other. Images of clashes between Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition are flashing across the screen, as an indistinguishable mass lobs rock and fireworks at each other on the Sixth of October Bridge. The nights characterized by laser pointer shows and celebrations seem to have come to an abrupt end.

In an hour and a half, I will be on my way out of Egypt. I have already talked about the decisions, both personal and bureaucratic, that lead to my evacuation from Cairo today.

Whole experience of being evacuated due to political instability is one of those kinds of stories that makes a good brief annotated that could be shared at a cocktail party. "During the Egypt revolution in 2013, I was evacuated from Cairo to Tunisia right after the government was toppled." The actual details are somewhat less compelling. If you’re looking for a story of a mad dash to the airport under fire, I would suggest you stop reading now. That is the stuff of films. The actually experience is far more mundane unless you are my colleague that got extracted in the middle of the night. It is mostly just a lot of sitting around waiting.

At 8:30AM this morning, my program began sending around a bus to pick up students from their homes and take them to the AUC dorms in Zamalek to wait for evacuation. I woke at around 5AM this morning, immediately checking my email for any developments that happened over night. There were a few emails but nothing super pressing. Most of the morning was spent drinking coffee, finishing packing, reading the news and writing. This blog has sort of become a labor of love over the last several days which have included some long spans of time at home. The bus did not arrive until nearly 10:30 AM at which point I crammed myself in the back seat with 8 other students. We joked and shared travel plans as we circled around Dokki together, picking up three more students. 

Tanks in Midan al-Galaa
While the city was largely quiet, one thing was striking; the army was out in force. They moved in as they deposed Morsi but there deployment had increased significantly even from the previous day. This morning most of downtown looked like it was under military occupation. There were at least 6 tanks parked in an alley off Midan al-Galaa. The streets were being patrolled by armed personnel carriers and more were stopped periodically along the edge of the road. It was difficult to imagine anyone seeing Cairo filled with troops and not thinking the word: coup. I tried not to let this armed show of force unnerve me since I am by nature made uneasy by shows of military force.

We arrived at the Zamalek dorms at around 11:15AM and most of the students departed immediately for the airport, which resulted in another round of good-byes. Considering the uncertainty of the future, most people seemed to be in good spirits. I had several hours to wait before I left for the airport. In fact, I had received an interesting email the night before about my departure from the dorms:

Your vehicle, driver and EP agent details are below.  The security team will be in position at your dorm at 1700 local. The driver will then provide transportation to the airport to meet your local departure flight.

Sounds rather black ops - doesn't it? That is about as exciting as it gets.

Until 5PM, there was not much else to do but sit around. I read, made friends with the Zamalek dorm's cat, shared some Yemeni food with a colleague and watched the events happening in Egypt on a large TV in the lobby. Unfortunately, the news was not encouraging. The pro-Morsi forces that gathered after Friday prayer were much larger than expected- around 100,000 people. At least three people were killed by gunfire as a crowd of several hundred tried to march towards the military barracks in Cairo where Morsi is believed to be held.  

While waiting for my departure, I had the opportunity to speak briefly with the President of the American University in Cairo, Lisa Anderson, who reassured me that she thought the program would reopen after our 6 days in the safe haven. I hope she is right but I wonder if recent developments have changed her assessment.

At a little after 5PM, our bus arrived along with the security team who was actual a single guy. He was dressed in the required uniform of all security professionals - khaki pants and black polo shirt. We appeared to take a rather creative path to get to the airport that included a detour midway through the trip after a phone call arrived. It was a bit unclear what they were trying to avoid en route, possibly just an accident on the highway. We arrived at the airport without incident which is to be expected. The security guy left us at the door of the terminal.

Upon arriving, we learned that our flight was delayed an hour and a half, which is hardly unusual on Tunisian Air. I sat down at the café with my laptop and cup of coffee to write this post with the time that I had before the flight. At first, there seemed to be no new developments from Cairo since the afternoon. However, the news turned dark as the sun set. While a great deal of the information remained hazy, it appeared clear that pro- and anti- Morsi forces had clashed violently on Sixth of October Bridge and near Midan al-Tahrir. Both The police and military were largely absent. Those that witnessed it compared it to the Battle of the Camel, when anti-Mubarak demonstrators were attacked by paid thugs during the 2011 Revolution.

As I read the live reports and watched the images of TV, I was struck by how quickly conditions changed in Cairo. At the same time, no one seemed to have seen this intense of backlash coming. The attempts to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood by arresting their leadership and shutting down their major television station seemed to have only emboldened them. Clashes on Friday were always a possibility but I had hoped that they could be avoided. That proved to wishful thinking.

Interestingly enough, I saw a post on Facebook from my roommate about meeting our neighbors for dinner. It continues to be striking the way in which life continues to go on even when the possibility of violence looms. Even during clashes, much of the rest of the city can be rather safe since the violence is rather localized. I could have stayed on my tree-lined street and been almost oblivious to the conflicts happening in other parts of Cairo. A lot of me still wish that I was there. I hope this exile from Egypt is short lived.

The Revolution continues without me…

Friday, July 5, 2013

Countdown to Evacuation

In general, I try to weave in details about my personal experiences in Cairo along with a larger account of the events in Cairo. However, I feel that my impending evacuation needs to be dealt with as a separate issue since it says more about the internal workings of the U.S. State Department and insurance companies than it does about actual events in Cairo. At this time, I firmly maintain that this evacuation is unnecessary. In spite of this, I do understand concerns of our friends and families back home. I hope that our departures help to ease their concerns.

On Wednesday night, July 3rd, the military deposed then president Mohammad Morsi with the support of  the overwhelming majority of Egyptian society.  At 11:29PM, a mere two hours after the speech by Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the US Department of State sent out a message entitled "Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens: Travel Warning for Egypt." It stated that "the U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer travel to Egypt and U.S. citizens living in Egypt to depart at this time because of the continuing political and social unrest." This message seemed like a sign of troubles to come for the future of my Arabic studies and rather rushed since the government had just fallen. All evidence was that things at that exact moment remained largely peaceful considering a coup was underway.

As a rule, I am skeptical about information coming from the US Department of State about events abroad.  While other foreign embassies have issued travel warnings, many, including the British and French Embassies, are not currently requering the departure of their nationals. Why is the United State's assessment of the situation so dire? It points to the fact that these announcements are political, expressing dissatisfaction with a foreign country's leadership rather than focusing on the safety of American citizens. This announcement seemed to be perfectly timed to highlight the United State's governments disapproval about the toppling of Morsi by the Egyptian military.

At 1:15 AM an email arrived from the CASA program stating that the "International Office at the University of Texas has asked that we evacuate all of the CASA Fellows, at least temporarily." It went on to state that it was the hope of the program that after a short period we would return to Egypt. At the time, I was finishing up my reactions to the actual coup (The tanks rolled in... And Egypt celebrate). Blurry eyed and exhausted after a long, emotional day, I sent an email off to my family about this unwelcome development.

In spite of our eminent departure, I still had classes which is a rather odd experience. A day of spirited debate ended with emotional good-byes with the staff and teachers. We still do not know if we will be coming back to Egypt. Therefore, it remains unclear whether this is just a break to evaluate the situation or this is the end of the program. A few students were already gone. In fact, one student was spirited away by some kind of extraction team on Wednesday night to everyone's great surprise. We have not heard anything about her since.

At this point, we also had no details about our evacuation except that we would be leaving on Friday and contacted by the insurance company sometime that afternoon. After class, I returned to my apartment, frustrated and unhappy about these developments. I emailed a number of Egyptian friends, who showed genuine dismay at the fact that we were leaving. Honestly, they did not seem to understand the thinking behind this decision. They were still celebrating the downfall of a hated government and the situation seemed better to them now - not worse. I agreed with them that Cairo felt safe at this point. I think that I have pretty good instincts about these kinds of situations and Egyptians are not shy about their feelings. Cairo is not a city on the verge of exploding in spite of what the western news might be reporting.

By late in the afternoon, I was committed to staying in Egypt. I had no intention of placing myself in danger but the situation did not seem that bleak. The insurance company was giving us another 5 days to evacuate. Even after that, I still had the option of buying a ticket home. As a student of history, I was watching it unfold in front of my eyes. It is not very often that you get opportunities like these.

Evidence that I will be returning. My dresser as I left
Besides from the obvious fact that the atmosphere is Cairo does not seem dangerous, I am intellectually against decision. It sends the message to our Egyptian friends that we are abandoning them. They have just gotten rid of an extremely unpopular president. At this pivotal moment of victory, we bolt at the first indication that things might get the slightest bit uncomfortable. Observing from the sidelines, we are merely tourists to their political transformation with no commitment to the actual process or its outcome.

As the afternoon wore on, it became increasingly clear how much both my family and the program disapproved of my decision to stay. With all US programs being evacuated, including the fellows from Fulbright and Boren, the pressure mounted. After a series of tense emails and conversations, I agreed to be evacuated and emailed the insurance company to make arrangements. It still seems unnecessary but it made everyone around me more comfortable.  My roommate is staying and I support her decision.

We originally believed that we would all be evacuated to the same location, probably a centrally located European city with a large airport. We were all praying: Not Frankfurt. We could then spend the next 6 days waiting to find out if we could return to Egypt or were being sent home. The insurance company, FrontierMEDEX, surprised us and gave all of us a choice as to where they wanted to be evacuated for the safe haven period. This might have been partially strategic since flights are filling up fast. While this was an appreciated development, it did result in some people treating an evacuation more like a free vacation. My colleagues are going to Madrid, Istanbul, Amsterdam, Athens, Tel Aviv and Paris to name a few cities.

For my own part, I choose to request Tunis so I could visit a close friend working there. To my pleasant surprise, they agreed almost immediately. It would allow me to remain in the Arab world and give me a nearby location to watch events unfold. I might get to see the organizing of a Tamarod campaign in Tunis. I could even get evacuated from another country in the region (Just kidding Mom!). Getting to visit a friend during this tense period takes a bit of the sting out of being evacuated.

In the end, I am lucky. During political conflicts, plenty of people do not have the luxury of an evacuation to a location of their choice, facilitated by an insurance company. The Middle East  is plagued by the problem of refugees, who remain in legal limbo. In contrast, I can move freely across borders with hardly a question due to the fact that I carry an American passport. Most Egyptians have never even traveled outside of their country. Not because they would not like to but due to the fact that such experiences is not open to them. In the era of nation-states, freedom of movement is a right guaranteed to the privileged few.

It has been an emotional few days.  The future of my writing on the Egypt revolution remains in question. Hopefully, I will return after this safe haven period to continue my studies and blogging. I will update this blog as long as it is possible about current events. For on the ground analysis, please see the blog of my roommate, Alexia Underwood:

The Revolution continues without me...

A Day Without Morsi

Cairo, Egypt: 6AM
Preparation for Friday Prayer outside my apartment. Photo by Alexia Underwood

Another quiet and rather cool morning in Dokki.

One of the things you do not realize is that no one sleeps in revolutionary situations, especially in Egypt. All the important news arrives at 2AM and the next thing you realize the sun is coming up.

Yesterday Egypt awoke to an Egypt not under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood for the first time in one year and four days. It seemed that the whole country took of a collective sign of relief. In just four days, Morsi's government had been toppled by a combination of popular uprising and a military coup. However, you are not supposed to say the word "coup" in Egypt. In fact, the use of the word by our dear President has resulted in a lot of anger. I would write an entire article about this, but Robert Fisk is more eloquent than I will ever be. I suggest you read his excellent article entitled "When is a military coup not a military coup?" from The Independent.  

While I still believe the term coup is appropriate, the fact that millions of people demonstrated in favor of the ousting of former President Morsi, changes the dynamics on the ground. This is not Algeria in 1991. However, the military intervened to bring the wave of revolutionary energy under control rather than save the revolution from Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, Egypt is mobilized and on the move. The question of next steps is completely open. In my opinion, the only way to bring about fundamental transformation of Egyptian society would be to wrench control of the economic and political system away from military. Unfortunately, the state has been handed to them as of two days ago.

A rose for the revolution.
Yesterday Egyptians continued to celebrated the end of the Muslim Brotherhood's year long rule. People greeted each other with exclamations of "Long Live Egypt!" In spite of the fact that we were given an evacuation order - I will address this later - we still had class yesterday, including a lecture on Ramadan. It creates a bit of cognitive dissonance to be discussing evacuation while still heading to classes. Not surprisingly, the majority of us had not slept much on Wednesday night and the getting homework done was out of the questions. We mostly sat around discussing the most recent developments and the future. At around lunch time, a women came around and handed out red roses to celebrate the "revolution." Our colloquial Arabic class turned into a debate about the future of Egypt among the different professors. 

While there was a great deal of disagreement between Egyptians and the rest of the world about what these recent events mean, there is one thing that they all agree on - Egypt is awake. One of my teaches claimed, Egyptians have escaped the genie bottle (القمقم). The Egyptians were ruled by Hosni Mubarak for over 30 years before the revolution broke out. It took only a little over a year for the Egyptian people to reject the Muslim Brotherhood. No ruler of Egypt would ever believe again that they could govern this country with impunity. 

Professors in the CASA Program debate the revolution.
In spite of this optimistic thought, there are reasons for concerns. I mentioned in my last blog post that the military had moved against three Islamic television stations just after Morsi was deposed. Upon awaking, I learned that the military had stormed one of the al-Jazeera affiliates in Cairo and arrested their staff mid-broadcast on Wednesday night. A media crackdown appears to be in full swing. The democratic nature of this new regime seems to be in serious question after only two days.

In other news of the day, the new interim president, Judge Adly Mansour, was sworn into office yesterday. Largely unknown and with no real experience in Egyptian politics, it is unlikely that he will have a great deal of political influence. In spite of those that argue to the contrary, the military will be ruling the new Egypt, not the civilian government. Former President Muhammad Morsi is currently in custody. He can share a room with Hosni Mubarak or they can build a special compound for deposed Egypt "presidents." Some people are speculating that Morsi will not be the last.

As the sunset last night, the celebration continued but much less subdued. A lot of people are returning to their now lives after 4 days of frantic activity that included long nights of demonstrating in Midan at-Tahrir and around the country. Everyone seems to be taking this moment to get a bit of sleep and see what happens. The military is continuing its over the top displaces of military pomp. Last night I watched a Blue Angel-style airshow over downtown Cairo from balcony and fireworks continued throughout the evening. The news feed showed that the crowds in Midan at-Tahrir.were rather small in comparison to past days. The question of continued demonstration remains open for the opposition.

A banner in my street. It says: Egypt is a country for all. Photo By Alexia Underwood
In terms of the former regime, there are reports that the Muslim Brotherhood is calling for protests after today's prayer against the coup. It seems like a dying cause but we hope it does not lead to more violence. Last night, Islamists clashed with the military at the Rafah border crossing in the Sinai, an area that has seen increased instability since the 2011 revolution. I would delay any trips to the Red Sea for the next week.

In spite of these concerns, Cairo seems safe. In fact, it feels safer than it has in weeks.

The Revolution Continues...


For more on events in Egypt, see the excellent blog by Alexia Underwood:

Thursday, July 4, 2013

المصري اليوم

The cover of the newspaper "Al-Misri al-Yom. The title reads: Morsi deposed on the people's command.