Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Downtown clashes subside

After a long night and morning of violence in and around Tahrir Square, the fighting between protestors and police died down early Wednesday afternoon. As my roommate Chris put it, the demonstrators didn't have the critical mass to keep it going nonstop. Yet that doesn't mean they're giving up easily.

With hundreds reportedly injured, some protestors have called for a sit-in at the square for an indeterminate amount of time. There was a big protest scheduled for next Friday, July 8, billed as a "Second Day of Rage," the first "Day of Rage" being the first day of the January 25 Revolution. I have a feeling this Friday is going to take its place in terms of its magnitude and significance.

I can't imagine we're going to have classes tomorrow (Thursday). Driving by Tahrir tonight, we saw at least one big tent set up in the middle of the square, indicating that protestors were going to be there for the long haul. Tons of people were milling about.

The tent from the car window, on the way back from a Sufi festival.

Complicating the security situation was a soccer match tonight between two arch rivals, Al Ahly and Zamalek, two Cairo teams with massive, loyal followings. The intense rivalry coupled with the fact that deadly clashes broke out at a big soccer game back earlier this year made for a potentially deadly situation. In light of the Tahrir demonstrations, the authorities almost cancelled tonight's game, but it ended up proceeding with the army reportedly keeping the peace at the stadium.

People packed ahwas (coffeehouses) across Cairo, and -- ilhamdulillah! -- the game ended in a draw. Probably the best possible outcome.

By the way, I've pledged my allegiance to Al Ahly, and I shall now be known as Ben Al-Ahlawi.

A snow day in Cairo

This morning I awoke to the news that students, faculty, and staff should stay away from AUC's Tahrir campus until further notice, as violent clashes between police and protestors spread in the vicinity of Tahrir Square.

The fighting started late last night as hundreds of demonstrators, many of whom were family members of those killed in the revolution, demonstrated in front of the Ministry of the Interior building, according to reports. Shortly after midnight, the police started firing on people and the clashes shifted toward Tahrir, only a few blocks away. Rock throwing, tear gas, and rubber bullets left many injured.

At around 6 or 7 a.m. this morning -- right before I woke up for 8:30 a.m. classes -- it seems as if the fighting picked up again after a nighttime lull that at one point saw an imam at a nearby mosque broadcast support for the protestors over the mosque's loudspeakers. Following Twitter, it actually seems like the worst of the clashes are now taking place right in front of the AUC campus and a couple blocks down the road, right where AUC has a couple more buildings and a fitness center.

It seems as if the clashes are an explosion of pent up anger at the military's handling of the country's affairs, and, according to my friend Chris, who just returned from checking out the demonstrations, protestors were even calling for the resignation of the head of the military council currently leading the country.  That's some pretty serious stuff when criticism of the military is still a serious offense, with the council prosecuting those who challenge its actions. Even if those actions -- repressing demonstrations with tear gas and beatings -- are starkly reminiscent of the Mubarak era.

Needless to say, I'm safe at home right now with the AC blowing. We went up on our roof to see if we could catch a glimpse of anything, but we didn't see any tear gas clouds wafting up into the air or even traffic on the bridge to Tahrir. Here in Dokki (my neighborhood), all is well, and I'm going to use the day off to catch up on work and chill.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The constitution first?

Signs in Tahrir Square call for "the constitution first."

Egypt held its first free and fair vote in many, many years back in March, when Egyptians overwhelmingly passed a constitutional referendum that set presidential term limits, changed the election law, and stipulated that parliamentary elections should precede the drafting of a constitution. My professor told us that everyone was giddy that day; people took photos of their dyed fingers showing they had cast their ballot.

Now, three months later, many liberals continue to demand that a constitution come before parliamentary elections. Many of them fear that the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious parties will meet with success in this fall’s elections, threatening the possibility of penning a more liberal, secular constitution. Protesters frequently call for “ad-dustur awwalan” – “the constitution first” – and a political movement has even said that it has gathered 3 million supporters’ signatures. A major protest called for two weeks from now was originally centered around that idea and may still be.

My friend Galal, who fought his way to Tahrir on the bloodiest days of the revolution, is a liberal who is adamant that a committee of legal experts and others should draft a constitution now. If I were in his position, I’d probably feel the same way – having risked my life fighting for certain ideals, among them a secular state based on social justice and liberal values, it would feel like the Muslim Brotherhood was stealing the revolution from me and other young people.

In many ways, the liberals’ rejection of the outcome of a democratic vote – not a very good precedent to set, if you ask me – is indicative of their failure to mobilize grass-roots support and organize well in the post-Mubarak era. They’ve formed dozens of parties and even more political groups, yet they appear fractured and reactive. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups, on the other hand, have been out campaigning, organizing, forming coalitions, and capitalizing on their decades-old, broad social service networks. A very likely reason why liberals are pushing for ad-dustur awwalan is to push off parliamentary elections and give them more time to grow their parties and compete more vigorously with the established groups, like the Brotherhood.

These are heady times in Egypt. Its not often that a country of 80 million people gets to write a constitution, and they better be careful to produce a document representative of will of the Egyptian people. Otherwise, post-revolutionary Egypt could become politically deadlocked, or worse.

As a member of the Iraqi parliament told me and a group of my friends the other day (next blog post!), Egypt better not rush it with its constitution like Iraq did. Otherwise, Egyptians could be tweaking the document many years down the road, struggling with an imperfect system that doesn’t accurately reflect the desires of a cross-section of society.

With their rejection of a democratic vote and rush to write a constitution, the liberals better be careful what they wish for.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Hipster (n.) -- One who possesses tastes, social attitudes, and opinions deemed cool by the cool. The Hipster walks among the masses in daily life but is not a part of them and shuns or reduces to kitsch anything held dear by the mainstream. (Source:
Egypster (n.) -- A hipster + falafel and an accent

I had my first encounter with the cool kids of Egypt last weekend. Tucked behind once-majestic 19th century buildings, at the end of alleyways populated by old men in ahwas (coffeehouses), my friends and I arrived a free electronic music festival full of Egyptians -- and a bunch of expats -- wearing Western clothes and listening to weird experimental European electronica. Expensive cameras and cell phones were more abundant than headscarves, and some people were even drinking beer openly inside the venue.

I left the main room after suffering through about 30 seconds of the electronic music, and wandered next door to an art gallery-cum-performance space where teenage Egyptians were rapping before an audience of about 20 or 25 people. The various performers and audience members mixed freely, and a lot of people seemed to know each other. Cigarette smoke wafted upward toward the high ceilings.

After some freestyling and beatbox, I returned to the electronic music and was pleasantly surprised to find that a Parisian DJ had started mixing more danceable music (read: not weird, metallic noises).

Note the DJ's ridiculous/awesome bird hat:

After the show ended, Mike and I emerged from the alleyways packed with Egyptians young and old, and we walked back over the Nile in the direction of our apartment -- back into the traffic-infested, loud, crazy, and conservative Cairo I've come to know over the past couple weeks. The Egyptian capital is an enormous metropolis with a plethora of subcultures; I'm really looking forward to discovering the diversity of this city over the next year.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My fireproof apartment

Finally! After two weeks in Masr, on Sunday I finally moved into a place to call home. It's on the top floor of our building and has roof access. Above is the view from the roof at night (the Nile is visible in the back, between the buildings); check Facebook within the next few days for daytime photos.

Negotiating the contract was pretty funny. After our elderly landlord told us she would be our "mother in Egypt" and promised to bring food over to us periodically, we read over our two-page contract -- in Arabic. Fortunately, my roommates Mike and Chris have a much better command of both formal Arabic and Egyptian dialect, so they took charge. Some highlights:

  • The Revolution Clause: We added a stipulation that we wouldn't be responsible for paying anything extra if we had to leave early, i.e. if there's another uprising and/or violence. Our "mother" wrote into the contract -- in colloquial Arabic: "If they have to leave early, ma feesh mushkila" -- no problem.
  • $$$: Even though ATMS are ubiquitous in many neighborhoods of Cairo, Egypt is still a cash-based society and, as such, we paid everything entirely in cash. Credit isn't popular because I don't think banks are insured, and there's obviously uncertainty about the future coupled with tons of bureaucracy and a large degree of corruption.
  • Wasta (connections/favoritism): It turns out our landlady is a cousin of presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Turns out she has the same last name. Maybe we can meet him; I have a feeling he won't be too busy after the elections this fall.
  • Stop, drop, and roll: We asked Mom if she could buy us a fire extinguisher. "Ma feesh mushaakil [There are no problems] in my apartment!" she replied. "If there's a fire, just knock on my brother's door next door -- he knows some important people in the fire department, and they'll come quickly." Needless to say, we're buying a fire extinguisher on our own this weekend.
  • Grape leaves: After bring us koshary last week, she promised to cook us grape leaves the other day. Unfortunately, she has yet to deliver.

Despite our lack of grape leaves, we're pretty set otherwise. Going against everything I know and have heard about Egypt, almost every single thing that was wrong with the apartment when we moved in was fixed within 48 hours. Maybe the revolution had an even greater impact on Egyptians than I thought…

Still gotta clean and buy a desk...

The Nile! 

I have a great view of the Saudi Faisal Islamic Bank of Egypt, as well as the Sheraton.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

All the lonely people

An unfortunate victim of the revolution has been Egypt’s tourism industry, which has in the past accounted for around 5 to 10 percent of the country’s GDP. Nowhere is this more evident than at the great pyramids of Giza themselves, which I visited today with a group organized by AUC.

Anyone who has been to the pyramids remembers the extremely annoying touts selling everything from crappy plastic pyramids to crappy t-shirts and crappy stuffed camel toys, aggressively plying their wares to tourists from all over the world. The touts came out in force today, too, but they had way fewer victims to harass. At the height of morning visiting hours, the plaza by the pyramids was largely empty, save for a busload of Russian visitors, the American students in my group, and a smattering of others. It was incredible – when my parents and I visited last year, you had to push your way through people to see the Sphinx up close, but today the 26 of us made up a significant chunk of the people there.

Before the revolution…

… and after.

Egyptians who rely on tourism for their income have been hit hard, and it was difficult not to feel sad even for the annoying jerks who follow you around on their camels begging you to hop on and take a photo for a price. “I give you Egyptian price, not tourist price,” one of the jerks told us, “because there are no tourists here.” It was sad – that is, until he ruthlessly attacked another tourist nearby with a t-shirt and wooden Sphinx model.

Still, I felt lucky to experience the pyramids with hardly anyone else there. How often does one get to have a wonder of the world almost entirely to himself?

P.S. This is possibly the funniest interview I've ever read: Q&A with Egypt's Gladiator: Fight with Lion still on! An Egyptian guy is trying to promote tourism by fighting a lion in a cage match, but he's instead provoked international outrage:

Essawy: This will be my first battle with a lion, yes. I have fought other animals, mainly dogs. On separate occasions, I have fought three of the most ferocious dog breeds.

Q: You punch dogs?

Essawy: I punch and kick them.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


The CASA program officially kicked off earlier this week, and it’s already the weekend. The workweek in Egypt runs from Sunday to Thursday, and T.G.I.T.!

Sunday and Monday consisted of orientation, which included a completely useless security and health presentation that focused primarily on fire safety and how we shouldn’t swim in the Nile – and contained almost no mention of what to do in case of protests or riots or whatnot. Of course, there are never any protests or disturbances or revolutions or whatever in Egypt – unheard of! – so, mish mushkila (no problem).

We also paid a visit to AUC Fantasyland, otherwise known as the university’s American-style new campus out in the desert. We swam in an Olympic-sized pool, read signs with perfect English scrawled upon them, and saw the offspring of the upper crust of Egyptian society wear their Abercrombie and as they enjoyed the luxurious trappings available at any nice American college. It takes an hour or two to get there, depending on traffic, and the bus costs about $3.50 each way, so I don’t think I’ll be going often to New Cairo, the suburb that plays home to the campus. That’s not why I’m here anyway. (For more, check out my friend Mike’s great post on the topic.)

This summer, all the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) students are enrolled in two classes: Modern Standard Arabic and Egyptian colloquial, both with a focus on Egyptian culture and society. And we have TONS of homework every day. Just like in Jordan, I feel like I’m at the bottom of the class in terms of previous knowledge. Amman turned out alright, though, so I’m confident this will work out, too. Also: We have "club day" on Sunday instead of classes, and I'm in the journalism club, of course.

Lots of exciting stuff going on this weekend. Look for more posts, and check out my photos on Facebook!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Revolution in My Backyard

It’s not often that one gets to live where a revolution just took place (and is arguably ongoing), and it’s even rarer to go about one’s daily business right next to that uprising’s epicenter. But that’s just where the American University in Cairo (AUC) is located—literally bordering Tahrir Square—and I’ve been spending my days taking it all in, talking to Egyptians in my limited Egyptian colloquial Arabic and hoping to better understand how the “New Egypt” is faring.

“Raise your head up,” reads some graffiti by the entrance to the AUC campus.

Most Egyptians appear to share the notion that the majority of the country suffered under Mubarak and that it’s good that he stepped down from power. Mubarak’s name has quickly disappeared from a host of places around Cairo, including his eponymous Metro station, which has since been renamed Martyrs Station. Even the few upper-class people with whom I’ve come into contact say they’re happy Mubarak is gone, even though they conceivably benefited from the previous regime.

Beyond agreement over Mubarak’s exit, though, I get the sense there’s very little unity in thought with respect to how the country should proceed. It’s possible people like to talk about the past because that narrative is so black and white while current times are so unclear. The larger issue, it seems, however, is that corruption still exists, the economy is still bad, people are still out of work, and the personal security situation has gotten somewhat worse, with so-called “thugs” on the prowl (the “thugs” thing might be a bit trumped up, though). So people are beginning to realize that despite the very visible court trials of some former officials—and Mubarak’s upcoming trial—the revolution has yet to conclude.

A photo exhibit at AUC documents events that occurred at the university’s doorstep only four months ago.

Signs of the original 18 days of protests are everywhere, as are hints of ongoing political tension and demonstrations. From posters in the Metro station commemorating those who died in the revolution, to graffiti outside the walls of AUC, it’s thrilling to see how Egypt is reeling from both its newfound freedoms and emerging internal and external tensions. Perhaps most promisingly for the economy, Egyptian companies and entrepreneurs alike have responded robustly, with ads praising the Egyptian people and apparel commemorating January 25.

And every young person I’ve met so far says they were in Tahrir during those 18 days—that is, except for one new friend who was in the army in Alexandria who called the revolution a very tough time to be in his position.

On first look, then, the initial tide that united Egypt in revolt does not appear to have totally receded. But post-January 25 Egypt seems like it’s certainly a very tough place to be a citizen.

A man peruses martyrs posters in the Tahrir Square Metro station.