Saturday, September 15, 2012

Great timing

I'm on the ground in Cairo after nearly three months away, and it's been an interesting return. Protests roiled capitals across the Arab world this week in response to an anti-Islam video purportedly made in America, including a riot that breached the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Tuesday.

Since arriving last night (Friday), I haven't been out and about too much since I've been so jetlagged, but my impression is that the demonstrations in Cairo are quite similar to other clashes during the last year and a half. A protest starts out for one reason or another, the police underestimate its size and/or intentionally let the embers simmer for a while (is that a real expression? I dunno -- I'm jetlagged...), then when the demonstration gets out of hand, tons of random youths descend on the scene to fight the police because that's what they like doing.

So it sounds like the initial pretense for protests -- the anti-Islam video -- quickly devolved into an excuse for a core of a couple hundred uneducated youths who have a some score to settle with the police to battle the cops. Egyptians generally call these people "baltigiya," or "thugs," and many people here believe they're paid by someone to mix in with the real protesters and sow chaos. Who's paying these people? Depends who you ask; I've heard Mubarak's associates, the Muslim Brotherhood, foreign governments. So many conspiracy theories, so little logic.

I just read what appears to be a pretty good summary of what's going on here now. Check it out at The Egypt Independent, an English-language paper here. Sounds like most protesters haven't even seen the video.

Personally, I feel safe since I'm in the confines of my friend's apartment and since I haven't ventured over to Tahrir Square or the U.S. embassy nearby. I've also read reports that things have calmed down. Even though I'm relatively close to everything -- maybe a 25 minute walk -- you would have no idea anything's happening since life goes on in this city of 20 million people. I don't think the violence this week spread more than a few square blocks.

This afternoon I ran an errand to pick up a phone. My taxi driver got my hopes up when he said that the demonstrators are bad people, Egyptians love Americans and Europeans, and it's really only the governments that are the problem. Then he said a Jewish lobby controls Obama's mind and wants to keep Egypt down. He also complemented my Arabic, so I have mixed feelings about the ride.

Down the street from my friend's apartment, a couple dozen protesters ringed the interior of a traffic circle this evening, holding up signs deploring the violence and urging dialogue. "Islam is a religion of respect" was the general gist of their posters, printed in Arabic and English. Dialogue, not anger.

Update (Sept. 16, 2012): Two final thoughts. It seems there is a wide gap in Americans' and Egyptians' concepts of the interaction between freedom of expression and freedom of religion. For many Americans, the right to free speech is sacrosanct, even if that speech defames religion. Many Egyptians, meanwhile, are all for free speech, as long as that speech doesn't defame Islam or the Prophet.

Also, many here don't understand that the American government is not involved with the video in question. As the above story from The Egypt Independent puts it, when discussing one particular demonstrator, "[L]ike most protesters at the scene, Ibrahim believes 'The Innocence of Muslims' is a Hollywood production that, like any local or international film released in Egypt, and presumably elsewhere, passes through several rounds of censorship and receives official state approval from its own government before seeing the light of day."