Monday, November 28, 2011

My piece in Salon on Egyptians' views of Tahrir

Since my flurry of updates last week, fighting in downtown Cairo tapered off, the protests in Tahrir weakened, and my computer's hard drive crashed. Oh, and the first round of Egyptian parliamentary elections started today—more on that later.

As Egyptians made last-minute decisions about who they'd vote for, I was working on a piece for Salon on the growing divide between the protesters in Tahrir and the rest of the Egyptian populace, most of whom prefer stability to continued demonstrations and a strong economy to violent clashes. I visited Boulaq ad-Dakrur, a working-class Cairo neighborhood, to provide a glimpse into the mood in Egypt as elections begin.

Check out my article here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

'In Tahrir Square, it's January again'

My day today consisted of frantically following Twitter from the moment I woke up until now, around 1 a.m. in Cairo. My classes took place at the same location they did yesterday, in a leafy neighborhood called Zamalek located on an island in the Nile River only about a 10 minute drive from Tahrir Square. I felt worlds away from the fighting, as people went about their daily lives and relaxed in the community's chic cafes.

Clashes in downtown Cairo, though, and specifically right near the American University in Cairo campus where my classes are normally held, continued full steam as protesters kept up their fight against police on a street off of Tahrir. About 45 minutes before my last class was scheduled to end, the director of my program knocked on our door and told us to head home ahead of a citywide curfew called for 3 p.m. It turns out that curfew was just a rumor, but they also dismissed us so we could avoid anticipated traffic congestion linked to the "million-man" march/sit-in planned for earlier this evening.

Just as we arrived in our neighborhood, a large group of school kids marched by in the direction of Tahrir. Chanting slogans and singing, the kids had smiles on their faces and waved Egyptian flags. "Join us!" one urged.

I sat with friends at home most of the afternoon and evening glued to Twitter and the television. We saw one or two more marches go by with young people headed downtown.

Around sunset, we decided to check out the view from the roof of a hotel closer to the square, on the bottom of the same island that is home to Zamalek. On our way, we walked near a much larger march of a couple hundred people on their way across the last bridge to Tahrir. Cries of "Freedom!" and "The people want the fall of the field marshall" filled the air. Egyptians young and old streamed past us in the other direction, their eyes teary and faces covered with yeast, which the protesters have been using to counteract the tear gas's effects; many wore face masks, and some had gas masks hanging around their necks.

Throughout the evening, I learned that many of my Egyptian friends and acquaintances made their way downtown, including one friend who's hardly interested in politics. On Twitter and in person, Egyptians explained how today's Tahrir felt like the Tahrir of the uprising in January and February, when the square looked less like a traffic circle and more like a sea of people packed shoulder to shoulder. Newspapers this week certainly shared that view.

Nearly every Egyptian friend we spoke to urged us Americans to stay home. Xenophobia is on the rise in post-Mubarak Egypt—conspiracy theories about foreign intereference are ubiquitous in the Arab world in general—and the last thing many protesters want is for foreigners to come to Tahrir and play into the storyline that the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) is selling, that "foreign hands" and foreign elements are behind the current unrest. News that three American undergraduate students studying abroad at AUC were arrested in Tahrir only served to discourage us more from going down.

As thousands and thousands of Egyptians continued to pour into Tahrir, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the SCAF and the effective ruler of Egypt, gave a rare televised address. Using language reminiscent of Mubarak's speeches during the uprising earlier this year, Tantawi praised the army's role in society, said it never fired on civilians, and decried the media and the gloomy economy. He also promised the SCAF would submit to a referendum on immediately giving up its power, if the people call for it, and agreed to fully transfer power to a civilian president before July 2012. Parliamentary elections will still start next Tuesday, he said. Wrap your head around that one.

It remains to be seen how Egyptians will react to Tantawi's speech and concessions. Since the speech, fighting in the streets near Tahrir has only intensified, with some tear gas entering the square itself and a number of protestors complaining that the gas used feels stronger than the norm. Clashes are taking place in Alexandria, too, and I've heard reports of demonstrations in other Egyptians cities.

I'm off to bed, but please continue to join me on Twitter @bgittleson, and let me know if you have any questions. We'll see how Egypt—and Tahrir—react to developments throughout the day tomorrow.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tahrir protests, political uncertainty grow

One day later, the protests are not just continuing but have gotten larger. Throughout the day today, the casualties figures creeped higher and higher, and I've seen and heard reports of at least 44 killed and 1,500 wounded. Remarkably, the fighting itself remains concentrated in a few square blocks right by the American University in Cairo campus and the nearby Ministry of the Interior.

On a personal note, I received news via Facebook this evening that a nice young man I met in Tahrir Square a couple months ago was killed yesterday in the clashes. Shehab Ahmad was 25 years old, and I had hung out with him and talked politics once or twice in Tahrir. I hardly knew him, but it was chilling checking out his Facebook profile after I learned of his death: Someone had posted a photo of a pile of corpses in Tahrir—and had tagged him in it. I've uploaded the photo (it's graphic) to my Twitter feed. He appears to be wearing the same shirt he had on when I took this photo of him back in September.

Also this evening, I accompanied two friends who wanted to donate blood to a hospital a few kilometers south of Tahrir. The blood bank received a relatively steady stream of people while we were there—mainly Egyptians but some foreigners, too—but it definitely wasn't overwhelmed by donors. A worker at the hospital, called Qasr El Aini Hospital, told me they had received some injured people from the clashes.

It's difficult to discern the potential effects of the fighting, since developments are rapidly unfolding. Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and his cabinet reportedly submitted their resignation tonight, but the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) apparently rejected it. Parliamentary elections are still scheduled to begin a week from today, although I seriously doubt that'll happen. It's hard to believe that Egypt will be able to hold credible elections when the very police that are supposed to guard the polling stations are currently fighting Egyptians in downtown Cairo.

What'll happen in the next few hours and the following few days remains to seen, but my guess is that the police (if they're smart, which they have yet to prove) will pull back from directly fighting the protesters, while the SCAF will make some larger concession about a timetable for relinquishing power sometime in 2012. Then things will die down in and around Tahrir, and the average Egyptian will be happy that a degree of stability will have once again descended on Egypt. Most Egyptians I've talked to, by the way, are confused and angry about the violence but don't necessarily agree with the concept of continued protests, as they just hope for a return to stability and more prosperous economic conditions. Elections might still take place on time, but with decreased turnout because of fears of election-day violence.

Or everything could spiral out of control. All it takes is an iconic image of a child killed by the army in Tahrir, or a particularly bloody day of clashes, to sway public opinion in favor of the demonstrators. We'll see.

One last note: I've said this before, but it's absolutely incredible how localized the fighting is. I live five minutes away, but all the stores are open and people are out and about. Life goes on unless you're right downtown. Even a few blocks away, I hear, you often can't really tell that anything unusual is taking place right down the street—that is, unless the winds shift and a cloud of tear gas floats your way.

As always, for updates, follow me on Twitter @bgittleson, and check back here for updates.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cairo clashes continue into second night

Tahrir Square off in the distance at around 2:30 p.m. today, as seen from across the Nile.

Fighting in Tahrir Square and the surrounding neighborhoods is continuing into its second night this evening, as violence between protesters and police has reportedly left over 1,000 injured and two or more dead. I'm sitting at home in my apartment in Dokki, a neighborhood on the other side of the Nile about a five-minute drive or 25 minute walk from Tahrir.

These clashes appear to have started when police moved into the square yesterday afternoon to clear out a couple hundred protesters who tried to start a sit-in there after a massive, peaceful demonstration on Friday. Yesterday and today, rocks were thrown, tear gas was lobbed, and the police reportedly fired rubber bullets and birdshot at demonstrators.

The violence has largely centered around the gate to the American University in Cairo's Tahrir campus, where my classes take place. It's been surreal to see clouds of tear gas waft up into the air above campus, bloodied protesters being carted down the sidewalk I walk on twice daily, and riot police form a wall by the Hardee's and McDonald's branches I pass every morning and afternoon. The president of AUC said in an email today that campus guards reported groups of armed infiltrators on campus—which was closed today indefinitely—and that students said they saw people on campus throwing tear-gas canisters toward protesters outside AUC's walls.

About an hour ago, as my friends and I stood on my roof overlooking the bridge toward Tahrir, we suddenly saw dozens of protesters on the bridge sprint in our direction and then scatter when they arrived at the square near our apartment building, which borders a police station. It was difficult to see if the police were out there fighting the demonstrators, but a couple Molotov cocktails lit up the air nearby, and the street lights on the bridge went out.

The situation here eventually calmed down, and the protesters headed back in the direction of Tahrir. The Russians playing volleyball in a walled-in schoolyard no more than 100 feet away seemed unfazed. The strange thing about Cairo protests in general is how localized they can be, and how life can go on as normal a few blocks down the road.

These clashes are different from the other couple flare-ups we saw over the summer and in the fall, in that they've lasted significantly longer and are occurring only eight days before parliamentary elections are scheduled to kick off. They also seem to be building into this evening, as more and more people head downtown. It's been quite confusing trying to figure out what the security force's or military rulers' intentions are in all of this, or even if they intended for the situation to get out of control to the extent that it has.

Here in Dokki, I'm flagrantly putting off homework and watching the news unfold online. For updates, follow me on Twitter @bgittleson.

Update (11:45 p.m.): After a few more hours of on-and-off clashes downtown, I'm heading to bed. Based on Twitter and online news coverage—as well as some firsthand reports from friends who made their way to Tahrir this evening—it's still pretty tense. Videos show policemen dragging dead bodies, and for a while we heard nonstop sirens from ambulances speeding in the direction of downtown. I'm still probably going to have classes tomorrow, though; it sounds like they'll be held in a different location off of the Tahrir campus. Good night, and rubina yustur (may G-d protect us)!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chillin' at the ahwa

Ali Abbas, a man I met a few weeks ago near an outdoor market, relaxes at an ahwa (coffeehouse) in a poorer, shaabi (authentic) neighborhood of Cairo. Many older men pass the day at neighborhood ahwa's, sipping tea and smoking hookah, which is known locally as shisha.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The middle of nowhere

Apologies for the long gap in posts, but I did a bit of traveling within Egypt during a vacation for Eid Al-Adha, or the Festival of the Sacrifice, a Muslim holiday that commemorates Abraham's obedience to G-d when he nearly sacrificed his son. Before the father of all monotheistic religions was able to carry out the dirty deed, the big man in the sky had him slaughter a sheep instead. In that vein, Egyptians sacrifice thousands upon thousands of sheep every year to celebrate. The streets in some cities and villages supposedly run red with blood, although that wasn't the case where I was.

Just where was I, then? Well, to get there, hop on an overnight bus from Cairo, fall asleep as you drive for five hours away from the capital, wake up to screams and smoke in the bus after a wheel blows out, wait on the side of the highway for 45 minutes, pay a microbus driver to take you the rest of the way, then hurtle 185 miles (300 km.) straight into the desert with literally nothing to be seen for hundreds of miles around you. Twelve and a half hours after leaving Cairo, you will have arrived in the enchanting desert oasis of Siwa, only 30 miles (50 km.) from the Libyan border.

A small mosque at a rest stop on our return trip to Cairo.

The small town of Siwa gives off a distinctly prehistoric air, mainly because it's so far removed from the rest of civilization and because many of its 20,000+ ethnically Berber residents live in mud huts and adhere to centuries-old customs long untouched by outside influences. Located in a depression in the Libyan Desert, Siwa sits close to the water table and boasts an abundance of arable land and springs that themselves boast an abundance of hairy Arab male tourists. The waters allow for date and olive farming—the dates in particular are delicious—and are the source of much of Egypt's bottled drinking water.

Dusk over Siwa's salt flats.

Siwa is so isolated that its residents, who converted to Islam back in the 12th century or so, speak their own language and maintain a set of customs distinct from the rest of the country. The first paved road to reach Siwa was only built in the 1980s. Before that, according to a Siwan I met, journeying in a truck across the desert to the nearest town took three days and depended on the stars for direction.

Donkey carts seem to vastly outnumber cars in the desert oasis, and youths speed around on "tuk tuks," the local version of which consists of a metal cart attached to a motorcycle. Most village women only leave the house covered entirely from head to toe, including a black net completely concealing their face. Everyone knows everyone in the tiny town.

A marauding band of children on a tuk tuk whizzes past a woman. Note the five-year-old behind the wheel.

But Siwa's rugged isolation didn't preclude it playing host to some important visitors over the years. Alexander the Great stopped by in the 4th century BCE on a quest to visit the village's ancient oracle. So did the Germans, Italians, and British during World War II, as fighting raged in and around the oasis. How random.

Anyway, whatever reason past travelers came to Siwa, today the oasis attracts Egyptians and foreigners alike to its slow-moving, unique way of life, 4x4 camping trips in the desert, and cold and hot springs. We rode bikes around town, sipped tea with the locals (per Lonely Planet tradition), and feasted on delicious, cheap meat and bean dishes. Oh, and we went sandboarding and slept out in the desert. Even though tourism is central to the local economy, the town as a whole remains remarkably low-key and without large resorts, with most locals coexisting beside foreigners whose presence they hardly even acknowledge.

Like snowboarding, minus the snow and the annoying snowboarders.
(Photo credit: Jill Lyon)

In short, Siwa is different. Wandering around an ancient mud-hut fortress destroyed in three days of rain in 1926—the last time it rained in the village—my friend Jill and I met Moussa Aissa Moussa, a 14 year-old Siwan whose name translates as "Moses Jesus Moses" (he is Muslim). As he and his friend guided us up a hill dotted with ancient caves, he taught us the Siwi words for "sun," "rock," and "mountain," as well as the super useful phrases, "You are crazy!" (Anta kharfata!) and "I want to marry you" (Ana ayiz anjaf). It turned out that Moussa's father, whose name is Aissa Moussa, is a musician who plays a traditional wind instrument; every Siwan we asked in the next couple days seemed to know who he was.

Moussa's friend looks out over Siwa. The washed-out Shali Fortress, top left, towers over the town.

As we followed Moussa down the crumbling hillside, where modern-day Siwans live alongside caves from the time of the pharaohs, our new friend told us to jump in a tuk tuk that would take us to the town's main square. As we puttered back toward our friends, we asked our young-looking driver how old he was. "Thirteen!" he said, with a smile on his face.

Oh man, oh man, we thought. Turns out that far-flung place wasn't too unlike the rest of Egypt after all: Shabaab (youths) recklessly driving motor vehicles had made their way all the way to Siwa!

Moussa, the boy holding the cell phone, chills on a tuk tuk. (If you can't see the video, click here.)