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 bang…crash/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.