Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Egyptian freedom of speech: Same old red lines

Egypt's media has recently come under increased pressure from the ruling military government, with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) utilizing Mubarak-era methods to repress freedom of speech. The past few months have seen a television station's offices raided, newspapers confiscated, and private television stations pressured to such a degree that popular talk-show hosts have been fired or have voluntarily taken a hiatus. International rights groups have condemned the crackdown on journalists and media outlets.

Self-censorship appears to have reached a level unprecedented in post-Mubarak Egypt, and certain red lines cannot be crossed. First and foremost: No direct criticism of the military—and particularly of the ruling generals.

I authored a post on this topic for Fikra Forum, a bilingual blog run by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank in D.C. It's available in English here and Arabic here (translated by someone else, alas).

Enjoy, and please let me know what you think!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Man maid


Update (Oct. 16, 2011): After my mom told me she had no idea why I posted the above photo, I guess it requires explanation. As is common in the non-English-speaking-yet-desperately-striving-to-learn-English world, Egyptians often use the English language in daily life and marketing in well-intentioned yet tragically hilarious ways. This phenomenon was certainly common in Amman, practiced most admirably by the burgeoning ridiculous-notebook industry.

Egypt takes it to a new level, though. Usually, missing letters and mistranslated expressions serve as the basis for some good laughs. They're enough to get any English-speaking expat through the day, chuckling all the way. But sometimes, literal translations unintentionally challenge gender roles in this very conservative society, as the above coffee cup attests. Other times, a simple misspelling can make unintended social statements...

Such a shaggy car. Or saggy car?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Egyptian reflections on last night's violence

Egyptian newspapers from today. Left: "Egypt," dripping blood.
Right: "Egypt bleeds at Maspero," the site of last night's clashes.

Last night marked the deadliest incident of violence in Egypt since February's uprising, and throughout it all I sat gripped to my computer screen safe and sound in my apartment about a mile or two away from the fighting. Needless to say, I kind of gave up on homework.

Believe it or not, though, my classes started on time this morning, despite the fact that a curfew for my campus's downtown neighborhood had only expired two hours before. Talk of the clashes predictably took place throughout the day, particularly since many of the professors and administrators in my program are Copts, or Egyptian Christians. I wanted to share a few exchanges I had today about the violence; these views are by no means a representative sample of Egyptian society as a whole, but they do reflect a few different slices of the population.

Right off the bat this morning, my Egyptian colloquial Arabic professor, who is a Coptic Christian, seemed a bit anxious as we began class. He described the clashes in the greater context of the systemic discrimination Copts face every day. Shutting the door so passers-by wouldn't overhear, he told us he had heard two people on the subway discussing the violence. How did they characterize it? he asked rhetorically. "They said that there were Christian people who provoked it all."

My professor's young daughters, who attend school near the epicenter of the clashes, stayed home from classes today. "Are you afraid for your personal safety?" I asked. His reply came immediately: "I'm not scared—I'm angry."

But in a time when sectarian tensions could rise rapidly, there are rays of hope. Two classes and one eggplant sandwich after that first conversation, my Muslim professor sat down before us and apologized for not having prepared a formal lesson plan. At around 8 p.m. last night, he explained, just after the fighting broke out, his Christian friend instant messaged him with the news. Troubled by what they heard, the two jumped into a taxi to head downtown. No can do, said the cabbie, it's chaos down there. So they asked him to take them to the Coptic hospital, to which he obliged. "By the way," my professor added, "the taxi driver had been listening to Qur'anic verses on the radio at the time."

At the hospital, though, my professor and his friend encountered kids no more than 10 years old running with wooden sticks in their hands. Discouraged and concerned that the scene could deteriorate, they turned back.

So, visibly effected by what he had witnessed and heard the day before, my professor led us through an analysis of how state television had biased its coverage against the Christians, and of the prime minister's late-night statement about the clashes. At the end of class, he rushed out so he could make it to the funerals of the Copts who died yesterday, which were just getting underway.

Then, later this evening, my two taxi drivers shared their thoughts on the clashes, which they said were undoubtedly bad for Egypt. Both expressed frustration with events that seemed out of their control. Why can't protests occur peacefully, with no destruction? one pondered.

The other driver offered a rather fitting analogy. "Our government is like a fireman," he said. "They only put water on the flames after the fire starts—they don't do anything to prevent it."

Saturday, October 8, 2011

F16s fly in formation over Tahrir, make lots of noise

It takes a lot of noise to make Cairenes break from their day-to-day routines and turn their attention elsewhere, as this city's daily dose of honking, shouting, braying, falafel-munching, etc. rivals the decibel level of a rock concert. But pause and gaze skyward a lot of Egyptians in central Cairo did on Tuesday and Wednesday, as fighter jets flew in formation over the city in a show of force and celebration ahead of Thursday's Armed Forces Day.

Observed annually on October 6, the national holiday marks the anniversary of Egypt's victory in the first couple days of its 1973 war with Israel. What the military leaves out is October 9 to 25, when Egyptian forces fared somewhat less successfully. Put it this way: It's kind of like if Japan commemorated the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor as the day they beat the United States in World War II.

But the holiday is just as much about demonstrating the current power of the armed forces as it is about selectively ignoring history, and there's no doubt that last week's display had particular relevance as a council of generals continues to hold on to power in Egypt. With extensive economic holdings, strong ties to Egyptian political leaders over the last 60 years, and a compulsory draft of most young Egyptian men, the military remains a major pillar of the Egyptian state. Military leaders are intent on keeping it that way even as protestors more often and more pointedly direct their anger at the ruling generals themselves.

If only they didn't have to show off their prowess as I attempt to cross the street in downtown Cairo. Do you know how hard it is to avoid getting hit by a bus as you try to take a photo of a F16 soaring overhead?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Lions and tigers and really sad bears. Oh my...

The Giza zoo was just as depressing as I had expected it to be. Based on the uncaring way the average Egyptian treats street cats and dogs here—and the lack of pets in most Egyptian homes—I didn't hold out much hope for my trip to the city zoo last week, and disappoint the zoo did not.

Cairo is, in fact, located in Africa, so we're a bit closer to the source of all the cool game that is part and parcel of the zoo experience in the United States: hippos, tigers, and sweet African antelope, to name a few. The Giza zoo had all of the above with a splash of urban fauna, like the wild street cats darting in and out of enclosures, or the German shepherd exhibit for which it appeared that random dogs had been plucked off the street and placed in cages.

Despite its exotic pull, though, the zoo was pretty sad. Great black bears continuously circled cages not much larger than a couple rooms in my apartment, striving to break free; smoking zoo workers sat by enclosures with lettuce and sticks in hand, encouraging little kids to feed the animals in exchange for some bakshish (a tip) from their parents; and kids stuck their hands through cages, trying to pet the animals.

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

For a couple of the only foreign tourists in the entire place, it was almost more fascinating observing the Egyptian zoo-goers in their natural habitat than checking out the animals. Picture enormous families whipping out blankets, hookahs, full meals, and more, setting up camp anywhere they could find free space and some shade. Kids ran crazily from exhibit to exhibit, there was face painting at every turn, and women in niqabs dodged soccer balls flying through the air.

And I got to hold a baby lion cub! For only $3.50, you can take photos with a baby lion and have a cool story for friends. Or so we thought. The lion cubs were actually, as we should have expected, pretty malnourished looking and probably drugged so they wouldn't munch on our hands. Afterward, my friend Tyler and I walked away trying to justify to ourselves that what we had just done was OK. "We had to do it. I feel dirty... but we had to do it! We won't tell anyone or put the pictures online, though." It was like we had just killed someone and were trying to justify the murder to ourselves.

I kind of feel the same way post-zoo. I had to do it, but feel a little dirty afterward. I guess that feeling of disgust is included in the ticket price.

I saw literally every one of these rules repeatedly broken, save for the ban on fishing—which should have probably gone without saying anyway AT A ZOO. For example: