Thoughts from Tahrir

I walked around Tahrir and the surrounding streets for a few hours tonight. I’ve visited a couple of times before in the past few days but haven’t been able to spend much time there, mostly because we’ve been finishing up the first edition of our new weekly print newspaper. I hadn’t really gone close to the front lines of the fighting, but that’s been okay with me. War reporting isn’t the kind of journalism that interests me. But after seeing the square again and getting close to Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which has been the epicenter of the running battle between Ministry of Interior paramilitary forces and the protesters, I’m left feeling a little haunted.

Being there overwhelms the senses. The acrid stench of teargas hovers over everything, mixing with the smoke from bonfires made of garbage and the smoke from the sweet potato vendors who burn treated wood to heat their ovens and the piss that the fighters (understandably) discharge against the walls. The endless stream of ambulances assaults your ears, as do the incessant honking of the informal motorcycle ambulances that go all the way up to the battlefront, and the chants of “Down with the field marshal!” and, closer to Mohamed Mahmoud, the bangcrash/whistle of teargas cartridges. Inside the square, you are jostled by the crowds of people, pushed aside to make room for fighters on their way back to the front line or wounded on their way to the hospitals. The eyes take in everything under the tungsten street lamps: The crying faces of teargas victims and the alien-like visages of men and women in gas mask wearers, the swirling blue ambulance lights. Perhaps this kind of scene is pedestrian for people who are in conflict zones regularly. For me, they are new.

Some people say that the square right now reminds them of the 18 days in January and February. I have to disagree. When I was here in February the feeling in the square was angry and determined, but it was also somehow celebratory. The energy seemed clearly directed at Mubarak and his regime and was fairly well articulated. Tahrir does not feel celebratory right now. The constant presence of injured and the number of field hospitals (I counted about five, but that could be wrong) keep the atmosphere from getting too carnival-like. And while there are definitely some families around, the crowd is overwhelmingly young men. I was in the square with some female colleagues and people repeatedly warned them to leave. During the January 25 uprising, the mood was angry, but this seems like a darker, nastier anger.

I don’t want to say too much about the politics of all this, but we’ve been talking a lot in the office recently about this question of “state failure” and what that could mean for Egypt. I won’t get into it in too much detail, but I generally believe that real state failure is unlikely here because most Egyptians (or maybe I should just say Cairenes, since that’s what I know best) seem to have a pretty strong sense of nationalism and commitment to the state. But when I looked around the side streets near Tahrir tonight – at the post-apocalyptic scene of toxic fumes and burning garbage and decimated sidewalks – I caught a glimpse of what I imagine state failure to look like.

If the state is failing, the blame rests on the military junta’s shoulders. The violence downtown wouldn’t exist if not for their complete refusal to meet the revolution’s demands and their complete and utter mismanagement of the transition. And as the generals have positioned themselves as the guarantors against chaos and collapse, every new instance of street violence justifies their presence. For now, I’ll stay away from conspiracy theories.

I don’t know how this will end. I believe that if the generals are going to maintain the social contract, they have to give way to the protesters demands. It’s not just Cairo where these clashes are occurring. In Alexandria and Upper Egypt and the Suez Canal cities, revolutionaries are sucking up the teargas. It has to end soon before too much of the country looks like Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

Photo courtesy of Bora S. Kamel via Creative Commons.

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33 Comments

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33 responses to “Thoughts from Tahrir

  1. I equate(unfairly, perhaps, for I am not Egyptian) the status of the relationship of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces & the people of Egypt with the status of a man & woman who have gotten a divorce & then are reconciled. When the reconciliation fails, even more emotion is at stake in the failed relationship than existed in the divorce. SCAF threw Mubarak under the bus in order to reconcile their relationship with Egyptians, only to mismanage it utterly. Now people, especially young men, are p*ssed because they feel their entire lives, futures and freedoms are at stake, not to mention all the emotions and physicality they involved in the original revolution, only to find the have to continue to fight SCAF because SCAF refuses to hew to its promises of standing up true democratic reforms. It is the ultimate betrayal.

  2. gregorylent

    would it be safe to say that 99% of egypt does not care about “the revolution”?

  3. Troubling times. Often people think that the past will not repeat itself. Then it does and people are surprised. Armies from all nations and all times seem poorly suited to “peace-keeping.”

  4. Beautiful perspective here — thank you for reminding those of us on the other side of the globe about the realities in Egypt right now. Somber and revealing…

  5. Max! Annie’s mom here. Just saw you on Freshly Pressed and didn’t realize you blogged using the WordPress platform. Excellent post – feels very sad. At the same time my friend sent me a picture this morning of women lined up around her block to vote. She was serving them tea…! I look forward to seeing you in a couple of weeks and so glad to find your blog.

  6. Thanks for sharing …and I hope this ends in a positive way for Egyptians.

  7. Way to get me to read every single word. I wish I could have been there alongside you. My heart goes out to the people there.

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. I remember sitting in coffee houses around Egypt in the time of President Nasser and talking with young people then. They were a determined group with firm fix on a better future, and somewhere along the way, they got hijacked. It sounds like today’s youth have the same fire in them. Let’s hope their dreams don’t get likewise hijacked.

  9. I know very little about Egypt. I appreciate seeing this view from your eyes. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Egypt, you have done it the wrong way round: Not the Army should have accepted the resignation of the Cabinet, but the Cabinet should have accepted the resignation of the Army.

  11. Ah Egypt and the “Arab Spring”.

    There never was an “Arab Spring”. Instead, there was an Arab Fall, and now it’s heading inevitably into Winter.

    Egypt is removed one tyrant only to have the original ones step back in. They’re trying to remove that tyrant, only to install yet another tyrant, though one more to their liking. Islamist.

    The changes that have swept Egypt and the Arab/Muslim world do not bode well, contrary to all the hope, optimism and assumptions many Muslims and specifically the West made about it. The Arab world is about to swing from a secular totalitarian position to even more of a religious totalitarian position.

    All of this was inevitable. It’s not conspiracy theory. It’s the culmination of decades and generations of consequences mixed with purposeful planning.

    Another war – if not a couple more wars – is heading to the Middle East which will bring to mind WWI and WWII. Iraq and Afghanistan will pale in comparison, Libya comparible to Grenada.

    The real question is, how much of a role will the West play in this new chapter? I suspect not much considering the continued economic turmoil engulfing and drowning Europe and the US. We’ll probably watch from the sidelines while Turkey steps in, along with Russia (breathing its own last gasps to grasp power) and China.

  12. It would be easy to make a trite comment, but I can’t come up with words to express both my pain for the people of Egypt and my hope that this ongoing revolution will result in a country that serves its wonderful and hospitable people well.

  13. This passage I like: “When I looked around the side streets near Tahrir tonight – at the post-apocalyptic scene of toxic fumes and burning garbage and decimated sidewalks – I caught a glimpse of what I imagine state failure to look like.” It’s that kind of imagery that sticks with you.

  14. No, it would not.
    I can’t speak for all of them, of course. I have seen some of them talking about it on English and Arabic channels and my hubby who is Egyptian cares very much what happens in Egypt. I can’t speak for everyone but I believe a LOT of people care. Also, a lot of people voted, some didn’t as they were still in the square but that’s a lot of people standing up for change there.

  15. Chaos prevails and lives are lost. I can only hope that the people succeed. Change comes slowly.

  16. Pingback: TEN POSTS FROM OTHER BLOGGERS 29.11.11 « Horiwood's Blog

  17. I just hope it will be resolved without any blood shed.

  18. It seems that the Muslim Brotherhood is a sure bet for becoming the victor in Egypt.

    Ronnie

  19. Thank you for sharing this. As an American in Taiwan, I’ve never experienced anything like what you’ve described.

  20. Good post! people want to democratic state not military state…

  21. Extremely well-written post about what happens after revolution. Alot of times, so much emphasis is placed on overthrowing the current gov’t/president/regime that the plans for reconstructing society are overlooked.

  22. All states deserve to fail. They are a cancer. Anarchy, the absence of the state and all coercive institutions, is the future for humanity – if there is to be any future at all. . .and it won’t come without a fight. Solidarity with the brave Egyptian comrades!

  23. Joe Labriola

    Seems far from over, but so much has happened in less than a year!

  24. I haven’t kept up on the Arab Spring revolutions and the outcomes, but I remember thinking at the very start that they needed some kind of organization (other than SCAF) to pull them through. For a second I thought the Muslim Brotherhood would pull their stuff together–but they were so completely fragmented. Not too mention that the unions were demoralized by constant state repression. Organizing–a big no no.

    Reading this article made me a little disheartened towards the outcome of this revolution that was such an inspiration to everyone. But I hope it becomes more than just teargas and reform becomes a reality.

  25. Never in history has a military junta successfully governed a nation. A democratic form of government is the one and only formula to satisfy the needs of the people.

  26. It’s interesting to know how the spirit of Tahrir square has lived on and how the energies are being used to call for a common goal. But one thing would be looking more at development. I am only feeling sorry for those close to and the bereaved

  27. I am from India and have been watching all this events occurring for a longtime. The whole Mubarak episode and the revolution…..

    what seems to be the problem are the military people not letting go of the power… or what ?

    It seems that Egypt is up in flames again…… do keep posted…..I have started following you now.

  28. Justice is never given; it is exacted and the struggle must be continuous for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationship.

    – A. Philip Randolph

  29. Good article.
    What the news show you right now are screaming angry people of Cairo. Well there is, at least was, a normal side of life too.

    http://rastaphotographer.com/2011/12/08/egypt-cairo-8-years-before-revolution/

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