Sunday, June 30, 2013

Revolution: Today in a Single Image

It is rare the chaos of a day can captured in a single image. However, I think this photo tweeted by Bassem Sabry comes pretty close. It depicts Midan at-Tahrir filled with people as more arrive, crossing the bridge from Zamalek into Downtown. The exact number of demonstrators is still unknown but current estimates claim it was the biggest demonstration in the history of Egypt. While my body is under house arrest, my heart is in Midan at-Tahrir with the thousands of other demonstrators. Misr, you truly are Umm al-Douna today.

Photo by Bassem Sabry

Follow Bassem Sabry on twitter at @Bassem_Sabry or you can read his blog at

Ya Misr.... The Revolution Continues....

Dokki, Cairo: 7PM

Midan al-Galaa at around 6pm. Photo Courtesy of
Nav S'okay.
As the sun sets on a long day in Cairo, I sit watching al-Jazeera, my computer propped up on my knee. The call to prayer just sounded and the image from Tahrir is a mass open air mosque with thousands of people bowing their heads together. For most of day, I have struggled to pretend to do work while switching between facebook and twitter, reading the live feeds as they come in from around the country. While most of Egypt seems to be out in the streets, I spent the day confined to my apartment in Dokki due to security concerns.

Cairo. Photo Courtesy of Ahmed Farag.
This morning I watched event with cautious optimism but still waiting for the other shoe to drop. We had been inundated with so many emails cautioning us against potential violence and clashes. The New York Times refereed to Cairo as a tinder box on the brink of civil war. Clearly, those writers were not actually in Cairo speaking with actual Egyptians. While there were a few disturbing reports of armed members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the violence of the last few days hanging over the demonstration, this predicted chaos has yet to materialize. As the afternoon wore on that optimism shift to a kind of infectious joy mixed with a hint of remorse. The protests exceeded everyone's expectations with people pouring from all over the city. My only regret being that I am not out on the streets with what appears to be most of Egypt. Images of Midan at-Tahrir show an endless sea of people and noise, flags and banner waving in the wind. Another group of demonstrators, marched towards the presidential palace, filling the street as far as the eye can see. Some commentators are even claiming that these demonstrations are the largest in Egypt's history and bigger than those in January 2011, which toppled former President Hosni Mubarak.

Throughout the day,  I periodically checked in with friends participating in the demonstrations over social media. All of them expressed the excited they felt in the demonstrations, describing them as a wonderful experience of comradeship. For them, it seems as if they are waking form a long nightmare to find Egypt united, throwing around the term revolution with ease. They asked me to describe the scenes that I was watching on TV since it was impossible to get a sense of the size of the demonstrations from the ground. Even as the sun sets, the protests show no sign of winding down and will most likely continue long into the night with fireworks lighting the sky.

Alexandria. Photo Courtesy of Moustafa Alaa El-din Badawy.
In spite of the inspirational nature of these demonstrations, the way forward is less than clear. No one seems to know the next step. Most people seem confident that Morsi will resign quickly after this outpouring of opposition. However, I have never known leaders to relinquish the reigns of power so easily. I am apprehensive that this optimism may turn to frustration and possibly violence without a clear path forward. In spite of these reservations, I am determined to enjoy the moment with most of the rest of Egypt.

Tomorrow is a new day... Egypt is rising

الديمقراطية هي الحل

30/6 - The storm rolls in... Cairo braces for demonstrations

Dokki, Cairo, Egypt: 7:30AM

Right now I am sitting on one of the three balconies in my apartment, sipping turkish coffee. The city is bright but quiet, a breeze wafts in as clean laundry dances in the wind. The major sounds are the ruffling of leaves that surround my apartment and the tweeting of the birds that nest there. The streets are largely empty besides for a few teenage boys which my roommate and I watched from the balcony. In all likelihood, my narrow street will remains this way for most of the day. I could probably sit here without hearing a whisper of the events shaking Egypt to its core.

Today is the day - 30/6.

Its hard to express the feeling of living in a country that is teetering on the edge... Of what? No one is quiet sure - civil war, another revolution, a military coup. The greatest feeling in cognitive dissidents. First thing I did this morning was read the New York Times mostly in order to get an idea of what my friends and family are reading at home. It talks of coming violent clashes today, gun wielding protestors and possibility of civil war between supporters and critics of President Muhammad Morsi. The US Department has warned US citizens to avoid the demonstrations, pointing to the American student killed on Sunday while watching the demonstrations and the cases of sexual assault in Midan at-Tahrir. In the last few days, at least 5 people have died in clashes around Egypt - although none of them have been in Cairo.

While I do not want to the downplay the potential for violence, the feeling here is quite different. The images from Midan at-Tahrir were ones of joy last night not fear. At midnight, thousands of people still filled the square, waving flags and chanting "Get out" and "the People want the regime to fall." It was hard to imagine such images of optimism breaking down into violence and chaos. The people around us are discussing taking their country back from an incompetent government, referring to Morsi as the first elected idiot, not a downward spiral of conflict.

As a foreigner, I continue to wait. Today I will not be leaving my apartment until it becomes clear the path the demonstrations will take.

Yesterday, the sensation that I was living in two worlds, which were totally disconnected, was palpable. While the CASA program tested our phones and made preparations, my roommate and I went shopping for a dinner party. I was struck by the feeling that I had somehow become some out of touch aristocrat, sipping wine as the French Revolution broke out below me or that I was fiddling as Rome (was about ) to burn. At the same time, there really was not anything else to do and meeting with friends seemed better than sitting and waiting.

All in all, the Shariah Suliman Gohar, the main souq, near our apartment seemed no different than any other day. Vendors were set up selling an almost unending assortment of colorful fruits and vegetables along with bread, fish, meat and almost anything else you could want. A few people know me there now and I only had to show my face at one of my favorite stands before the vendor asked me if we I wanted cherries today.

I had decided to make kabob bil karaz (cherry kabob), a favorite dish of mine from the city of Aleppo in Syria (For my recipe see Kabob Bil Karaz). I had been hoping for lamb so I walked up and down Shariah Suliman Gohar asking butchers if there carried it. Unable to find a single butcher with lamb, I settled on beef and choose the busiest butcher on the street, who was in the middle of slaughtering a whole cow in the front the store. The owner dressed in a tan galibya greeted us friendly and asked us to take a seat after I order a kilo of ground beef.

As we sat there, the butcher shop was a buzz with activity. One  man was butchering ribs while another kid of around thirteen was slicing a giant slab of beef. The sight of a kid not old enough yet to shave, expertly butchering a hunk of meat, is a common sight in the Middle East. Children begin apprenticeships early or work in their family shops, following in their father's footsteps. Around my apartment in Damascus, there was a butcher shop in which a boy that could not have been older than ten often waited on us, wielding a meat cleaver with ease. It turns out that this thirteen year old boy was more competent than his older companion, who cut his finger. The boy quickly patched him up with the help of some bright red electrical tape. While trying to avoid the flying fat, my roommate and I took the opportunity for a vocabulary lesson. After asking several employees the word for ribs in Egyptian Arabic, which I only vaguely remembered, an older women happily explained it to us.

When we returned home, an email was reminding us in no uncertain terms that we should avoid all contact with the demonstrations and asking that we limited outside of our apartment.  The rest of the afternoon was largely spent cooking and chatting in our kitchen. The desire to work has been almost completely absent the last few days. I took the opportunity to write some emails and practice an hour of yoga in our formal salon that has become my workout room.

In the evening our friends gathered, the table overflowing with Syrian and Palestinian dishes - makloubeh, Palestinian ful, mutbal, humus, various rice dishes, muhamara, beet salad, sweets, fruit and my cherry kabobs. Our Egyptian friends gave us all little lamps known as fanous for our first Ramadan in Egypt. We stood on the balcony sipping sodas or Egyptian wine and beer, chatting about politics and life in Egypt. The TV played quietly in the background showing images of the demonstrations in Midan at-Tahrir that continued long past we all called it a night. Our Egyptian friends remained committed to joining the protests and told us stories about past years in which they had taken CASA fellows to Midan at-Tahrir, during the revolution, to our directors great chagrin.

The concern of our friends and family was never far from our minds but overall it was a normal night of merriment among friends. We joked as everyone was leaving that we would see each other tomorrow if fouda (chaos) did not break out in Egypt. While I appreciate the seriousness of the situation, everything just seemed to normal. Shouldn't a society, which the New York Times describes as on the brink of civil war, feel different?

Today we shall find out...

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Gathering Clouds... Cairo before June 30th

Yesterday, I woke early to go for a run with a friend before the Cairo heat became unbearable. We walked down Shariah at-Tahrir to Midan al-Galaa and across the bridge to Zamalek. We then jogged up Shariah Umm Kulthum along the Nile to the Markaz as-Shaab and did a couple of laps around their track before heading back to Dokki. By the time we returned, both of us were dripping with sweat as the temperature steadily climbed.

We were both struck at how quiet the city was especially after several days of congestion and confusion. It is not unusually for Friday mornings, the equivalent of Sundays in the United States, to be more subdued. Many people sleep in and then head to mosque, resulting in a late start to the day. However, yesterday seemed particularly quiet even for a Friday.

Photo by Aya Abdulaziz Sakoury
While there is plenty of homework to do, my roommate and I mostly hung around, taking the opportunity that the coming demonstrations afforded us to take a break from reading, writing and presentations. Demonstrations were planned for yesterday in Cairo but they were supposed to be relatively small, mostly confined to a few locations - Tahrir Square, around the Defense Ministry and in front of the presidential palace. Al-Jazeera remained on in the background showing images of at-Tahrir and pro-Morsi demonstrations in Nasser City, both images a sea of banners. Both scenes appeared lively but largely peaceful.

Photo Courtesy of Caitlyn Doucette
In the evening, we went on a felluca ride with a few friends, Egyptian and American, down the Nile. As I sat surrounded by friends, my hair blown back and Arabic pop bumping, I was stuck by how peaceful but how surreal the whole scene was after a week of frantic activity and possibility of confrontations to come. We floated by Midan at-Tahrir but the thousands gathered there were not visible from the river. The conversation continually returned to politics but other less pressing matters also wove through the conversations. All the Egyptians guys with us were planning to be in at-Tahrir on Sunday. As we grabbed a taxi back to Dokki, young men sold red signs in the street with the word "Irhal" - Get Out! printed on them.

After some dinner, my roommate and I returned to our apartment to learn that Cairo had largely been peaceful during the day with the two sides remaining separate. This was not the case for all of Egypt. The storm had already broken in Alexandria. Members of the opposition and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood had clashed violently, leaving two dead including an American student. Video showed demonstrators wielding large, heavy rocks and some weapons along with sporadic street fighting. Later in the evening the U.S. Department of State issued a message warming "U.S. citizens traveling to or living in Egypt to defer non-essential travel to Egypt at this time due to the continuing possibility of political and social unrest. On June 28, 2013, the Department of State authorized the departure of a limited number of non-emergency employees and family members."

This morning all appears calm again in Cairo. However, the clouds are gathering and the question seems to be when not if the storm will arrive.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Revolution Continues?*

Headline: The Last Dance of Satan

As I sit in my apartment in the Dokki district, a middle class neighborhood on the Western bank of the Nile across from Downtown, traffic crawls through the major streets. The gridlock has gotten so bad that many taxis refuse all together to take people to the area. The cause of the congestion is the a gas station situated on the Midan al-Galaa at the corner of Shariah at-Tahrir, the main east-west corridor, and the Nile Corniche. Trucks, vans and cars line both sides of the street, blocking the flow of traffic from all directions. The drivers fan themselves in the hot afternoon sun, hoping to buy gas on which many of their professions depend. This is just the most obvious evidence of the gas shortages that plagues Egypt's faltering economy. Tempers are short and fistfights are not uncommon.

This scene of frustration that has dragged on for days is adding to the general tension in Cairo. In the best of times, Cairo is a lively and chaotic city of over 30 million people, the largest in Africa. It often seems to walk the fine line between joy and insanity. In the last few days, its hard not to feel the tension is about to boil over. On Sunday, 300 Salafis in Giza dragged four Shias from their homes and beat them to death, lighting their home on fire. Evidence of deep rifts that are brewing below the surface. On top of this violence, clashes broke out between regime supporters and opponents in the city of Mansoura on Wednesday resulting in one deaths. More clashes were reported overnight outside of Cairo and an office for The Tamarod (Rebellion) Campaign was burned down.

At times it is hard to understand this potential for violence along side the passion that Egyptians feel for their country and the creative ways in which they are expressing their discontent for the current government. The Tamarod (Rebellion) Campaign  have gathered 13 million signatures demanding early presidential elections and promising to uphold the goals of the revolution in order to achieve a society of dignity, justice and freedom.

A few weeks ago, dozens of prominent artists and intellectuals broke into Egypt's Ministry of  Culture, declaring an open-ended sit-in inside the building until the controversial Minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz was replaced. The street outside of the Ministry became an open air carnival for several days as artists and activists preformed in the street. After a Shura Council MP calling ballet "art of nudity," dancer preformed the Zorba ballet as part of the protest. Video

On Wednesday, President Mohammad Morsi gave a two hour long address, admitting that mistakes had been made but also denounced enemies of the Egypt for sabotaging the democratic process. Either way, he not did provide any concrete steps forward. Before the speech, I was watching Al-Jazeera. They were live broadcasting the opposition gathering in Midan at-Tahrir to watch the speech one side of the screen and a pro-Morsi rally be Islamic Forces on the other with giant banner behind them that read "Yes to Shariah." It struck me as how representative this image was of the current political situation and the political divide in Egypt. The speech did little to convince the opposition. In fact, a professor of mine claimed it... زايد الطين بلة.  Roughly translated, it added insult to injury.

I have met almost no one here that claims to be a supporter of the Morsi government. In fact, the majority of people I have asked plan to join the demonstrations on Sunday. This may be partially a productive of the kind of Egyptians with which I am in contact. However, there seems to be deep rooted anger about the lack of security, the weakness of the economy, the gas crisis, growing fundamentalism and the general lack of solutions. More than one person has claimed that 70 percent of the country is against Morsi now. A cab driver told me that all of Egypt will join the protests on Sunday because people are tired and things are getting worse. The majority of people are clearly holding the Muslim Brotherhood responsible. When discussing the situation, a friend said يقتل قتيل ويمشي جنازته when referring to the Brotherhood.  This roughly translates as "murdering someone and then going to his funeral." It is used to claim that someone is deeply hypocritical which seems to be a sentiment shared by a lot of Egyptians about the current government.  
This is the context for a massive demonstration planned for Sunday by opponents of the current President Mohammad Morsi, calling for early elections.  Small political actions and demonstrations have been happening throughout the week. Today rally is planned to start from Cairo’s Al-Azhar district, marching to Tahrir Square protesting the use of mosques in urging people not to rebel against the president. Political representatives for the opposition said that several demonstrations are planned to snowball through the different parts of Egypt culminating in the massive demonstrations on Sunday that may continue into next week.

While activists get ready to challenge the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood,  we are planning in our own way. Many expatriates are evacuating Cairo all together, heading for elite beach communities that are unlikely to be effected by the demonstrations. The rest of us are planning to bunker down and wait to see what happens. Currently, we are being advised to limit our movements to familiar neighborhoods and avoid area in which demonstrators are likely to gather including Midan at-Tahrir. The American University suggests that we have food and water for a week on hand as well as phone credits and flashlights. The CASA program has taken the extra steps to map the location of all of our apartments and is prepared to send people out to check on us in the event that the cell phone and internet are taken down. Preparing for several days in our apartment, we also ordered a healthy supply beer and wine to survive the coming week. The only thing that I can compare these last two days is to a hurricane preparation. No one is really clear what to expect.

While I am not usually a worrier, this last few days have been pretty tense in the CASA program as they try to make sure we all stay safe. In contrast, I have been designing a menu of possibly dishes to cook, including chicken with freekeh, pumpkin curry and couscous with summer vegetables in case we are at home for several days. I am making sure my kindle is charged in case we loose power. All the while Al-Jazeera plays on a constant loop behind me. Honestly, there does not seem to be much else to do. At times like this, I am acutely aware of the ways in which I am outside of Egyptian society. Like many Egyptians, I would like to be down in Midan at-Tahrir but I will be watching the unfolding events on TV rather than first hand. To stand at a moment of possible revolutionary change and to not be able to participate, is deeply frustrating.

I have been asked a number of times in the last couple of weeks about my opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood. I usually reply that I stand with the interests of the Egyptian people. Right now, I am hoping for the best both in terms of the immediate events and in terms of the future of Egypt. These are likely to be the largest demonstrations since Mubarak's government fell in 2011.

In the mean time, I mostly wait... wait to see what the next few days will being....

*Disclaimer: While I have lived in Egypt and the Arab World previously and I speak Arabic fairly well, I only arrived in Egypt a few weeks ago. This blog is generally the perspective of an outsider. I apologize for any lack of nuance or mistakes. They are mine alone.

Revolutionary Grafitti

This is just a small sample of the graffiti, stencils and street artwork that are visible around Cairo.

Street artwork commemorating an activist killed during the revolution outside of ACU's Tahrir campus.

A similar piece of graffiti.

A piece of graffiti depicting the revolution.

A piece of graffiti denouncing homophobia.
A stencil from my street that reads: The People's Revolution, the People's Power.
It was part of campaign in January 2012 to oust the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and hand the power to lower house of the Egyptian Parliament

 A stencil that reads: Blood for Blood