A summer seminar in Cairo: More scenes from the Egyptian revolution
By Joseph T. Stanik Best Defense guest correspondent I read with keen interest Lady Emma Sky‘s posting "Letter from Cairo: A Stroll through the Ancient City in Search of the New Egypt" (May 31, 2011). I followed her to Cairo by a month and like Lady Emma acquired a priceless history lesson: an account of ...
By Joseph T. Stanik
Best Defense guest correspondent
I read with keen interest Lady Emma Sky‘s posting "Letter from Cairo: A Stroll through the Ancient City in Search of the New Egypt" (May 31, 2011). I followed her to Cairo by a month and like Lady Emma acquired a priceless history lesson: an account of the 25th of January Revolution from those who lived through it. Furthermore, through conversations with many Cairenes, I gained unique insight into their hopes and worries for the future. My two weeks in Egypt were very illuminating and generated the deepest respect and admiration for a great people who stood up to a corrupt, cruel dictator and ultimately forced him from power.
My first full day in Cairo, an American friend who is a graduate student at American University in Cairo and lives just two blocks from Tahrir Square gave me a thorough tour of the area of the conflict downtown. I observed several notable landmarks including the burned-out headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which still bore a undamaged billboard touting the NDP as the best guarantor of the future for Egypt’s children; the Sadat Metro Station at Tahrir Square, where protestors removed grates near the entrances and dug foxholes under the sidewalk; and the scorched but functioning interior ministry, where I didn’t dare take any photos. My friend described in fascinating detail how the protestors built up their defenses around Tahrir Square. Very early in the rebellion, they realized that they must expand their perimeter or be overwhelmed by the security forces. They gradually worked their way up the streets radiating from the square, extending the area under their control and erecting sturdy barricades with any practical material they could lay their hands on. Several sidewalks are still missing paving stones that were used to construct barricades. A few yards back from the outermost barricade, the protestors built another one, then another, and then another. The successive barricades enabled them to advance well forward to confront the security forces, Mubarak supporters, or hired thugs, and then make a covered retreat. When the army deployed to stabilize the situation, tanks and armored personal carriers took up positions between layers of the barricade, enforcing the separation between the protestors and their opponents.
When I visited Cairo in the summer of 2010, the conversation in coffee shops centered on the World Cup. This summer, the talk is focused mainly on politics. In the months following the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, Egypt has become politically vibrant; it seems like every Egyptian has an opinion, and they are openly discussing and debating crucial issues in advance of the parliamentary and presidential elections later this year. The lady, who roams about Falaki Square selling newspapers accompanied by her young daughter, has probably never been busier. I spent several evenings with two Egyptian friends in the square’s coffee shops and the popular watering hole Horreyya. One friend is a desert tour director; the other is an architect. One evening, they buy copies of Al-Dustour (The Constitution) from the newspaper lady, pore over the paper, and comment on several articles. For example, they are concerned about a report that the Muslim Brotherhood has received billions of dollars in international donations. They are worried about the level of influence that the Brotherhood and Salafists might have in the new government. The tour director argues for a secular government in which "Islamists will not able to judge the actions of people." He adds that they are "trying to be more than they are." The architect agrees and states that the best way to restrain the Islamists is to develop strong secular parties and put the new constitution in place before the elections. When I ask them what the constitution should contain, they offer a few specifics, such as term limits for the president, but are adamant that the document must do the very difficult: guarantee their security and at the same time safeguard their rights. They’re also disturbed by Secretary of State Clinton’s announcement that the Obama administration is open to a dialogue with the Brotherhood. The newspaper lady returns, and my friends buy copies of Al-Masry Al-Youm (The Egyptian Today). They devour the news and both complain that the military government is not moving fast enough to carry out the transition to true democracy and to bring Mubarak to justice for corruption and for ordering deadly measures against the protestors. They worry that the new government will also be infected by corruption.
I visited an antique shop in the Zamalek neighborhood where last year I met a female reporter for Radio Sawa. Her best friend runs the shop, and she helps out between radio spots. During the revolution, she tirelessly filed stories even when the internet was shut down by the Mubarak regime. When the net was down, she called Radio Sawa’s office in Washington, using either a cell phone or land line, and reported live on the air. She witnessed the huge "Day of Rage" demonstration (Jan. 28) and the bizarre "Battle of the Camel" (Feb. 2) between Mubarak supporters and protestors. She and hundreds of other protestors knew that "the gig was up for Mubarak" when he deployed thugs on camels in a futile attempt to thwart a popular movement that was informed and guided by Twitter, Facebook, satellite TV, and laptops.
The area around Tahrir Square was largely peaceful during my visit, but violence did erupt on three occasions. On June 28, a violent clash took place. For weeks, the families of protestors, who died at the hands of the Mubarak regime during the revolution, had demanded compensation from the military government. That night, hundreds of protestors marched on Tahrir Square, but their ultimate destination was the interior ministry. The protestors were met by security police at the square and a major battle took place. The number of protestors swelled to several thousand, and the confrontation lasted throughout the night. Several hundred protestors were injured. The army ordered the police out of Tahrir Square, and soldiers took up positions around the interior ministry. Demonstration organizers declared Friday, July 1, the "Day of Retribution and Loyalty to the Martyrs of the Revolution." They objected to the slow pace of reform under the military government and demanded immediate trials for the former interior minister and security personnel responsible for the deaths of protestors. Several thousand demonstrators converged on Tahrir Square and were joined by the families of the martyrs, who stirred up the crowd. The rally was peaceful and had a carnival atmosphere until after mid-afternoon prayers when a large number of protestors marched on the cabinet building and the interior ministry but were stopped by security forces and the army. A clash ensued, but by morning, the square was back to normal. Traffic flowed smoothly under the supervision of civilian "traffic cops," and several protestors still camped in the square. On the evening of July 3, my last night in Cairo, I returned a final time to Tahrir Square. I got out of my taxi on the northwest side of the square and ran headlong into a melee that had just erupted. Pro-Mubarak thugs, who had infiltrated the square as vendors, attacked a gathering of protestors with rocks and clubs and set fires in the square. I took refuge one block behind the square and then walked the long way back to a friend’s apartment located south of the square, all the while giving the fracas a wide berth.
Two days before departing Egypt, I witnessed an incredible sight: a young boy directing traffic on hectic Qasr al-Ainy Street where it meets Tahrir Square. (See photo.) This is the most memorable image of my visit. I’ve been thinking a lot about him, his fellow Egyptians, and the extraordinary challenges that they face in the months and years to come. Could he and his colleagues standing out in the traffic be sending the military government and the rest of us an important message? Perhaps they’re telling us: "We’re capable of governing ourselves, and we’ll do a hell of a better job than the regimes of the past 59 years!"
Joseph T. Stanik, a retired U.S. Navy officer, travels annually to the Middle East. He teaches Middle Eastern history at New Era Academy in Baltimore and at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland.