Third blog from Cairo

Asmaa gets depressed

It is often said that a revolution is the easy part. It’s building the new society that is so difficult.

This may be especially true here in Egypt. The president was overthrown in 18 days of heroic mobilization by millions. The wretchedness of Mubarak’s rule had turned all but a few into sunshine soldiers of the revolution. It created a beautiful moment of unity in a normally stratified society.

Now that he’s gone the scene looks far different. People have gone back to their daily lives. The poor can’t afford to be sitting in Tahrir too long. Some of them are still in prison. The 18 days were glorious but exhausting. Perhaps it’s time to breath out. The great unity shattered the moment Mubarak stepped down. The wealthy with a gripe share little common interest with the poor now. The hip urban youth have desires quite different than the rural religious and so it goes.

For the dedicated revolutionist this is a time of sobering up from the high they were on. We got a peek into their world through a visit with a young Lebanese activist who had come to Cairo to set up an Indymedia outlet.

Some made a fetish out of the world’s biggest sit-in. Let go back and do it again, they thought. And when they did on March 9th it was a disaster. Split off and isolated they made easy pickings for the army to arrest and beat them.

Some have made a virtue of the leaderless side of the Tahrir events. This has the very sad effect of at times making even a meeting of the core activists problematic. Someone has to call on people. Everyone can’t speak at the same time. Who gets to be the spokesperson to the press? We hear stories of the classic problem we see in the states. Isn’t it a bit boring to sit around talking compared to the excitement of taking the streets?

Even more difficult is figuring out the road forward. A great old revolutionist once said that in times of revolution the extraordinary power, energy and heroism of the masses is like steam in a piston box. The steam is the power but without a piston box it cannot drive the train.
In Egypt there is no piston box. Facebook was not the magical phantom that somehow got the time, date and place of the next event affixed without meetings. In the end folks have to sit together for those long, long wrenching discussions.

We have heard on a number of occasions of these strains creating depression in some of the activists. We are told that our hero Asmaa was depressed after the vote on last Saturday’s referendum was a “yes” (in the interest of more conservative layers), that she was too depressed to meet us. But this depression appears to be dissipated by the next campaign or positive shift in events.

Learning is most profound in the trial-and-error school of hard knocks. The lessons rarely come without some pain. This is how little kids do it and they are the fastest learners. This is far longer lasting learning than books. The youth we have met appear to have arrived on the scene with intense naiveté born of the fact that they have been cut off from any traditions of past revolutions that could be their guide. The upside is little bad baggage. The down side is few elders, few examples from which to learn how to avoid missteps before you take them.

So the learning, the talking, the sharing, the frustrations, the disappointments, the false starts and the uber-hard work of forging some organization goes on.

Back to Alexandria

We returned to Alexandria to film a second meeting with students. The itch to talk politics is intense. It appears far greater and on a higher level than a similar group of my students back home. This leap ahead is only in the past two months. They tell me more stories of how last December they were as self-absorbed and apathetic as the worst we see in the shopping malls at home. Most importantly they all say how much more alive and joyful they feel that their thinking and concerns have been expanded beyond their narrow selves.

I am driving home this point of intense and rapid personal change time and time again in this blog. One of the biggest distortions our brain plays on us is to assume that the future will be like the past. We all do it. We see how folks appear to be and assume that is THE way they are. We also do it to ourselves. In a less than perfect world this can lead to static view of human nature at best and deep cynicism at worst.

Egyptians are living through this intense moment of change with their eyes open. They are not alone. Every time I catch a glimpse of Egyptian TV there are images of people speaking out against the injustices they face be it Bahrain, Syria, Yemen or Libya.

The army is your friend?

Time and time again we hear that the army is the people’s friend. It was the army that stepped in to protect people from the evil police and state security. The army is made up of working people who would never shoot on their brethren. Perhaps it was the army that gave the Mubarak the final push out the door. In our last blog I compared them to school teachers at a traffic crossing.

Now it is looking more complicated. I think I got sucked into the dream image.

The army is a gigantic million-person machine. It has been funded by 2 billion a year in aid from the U.S. It has benefited from Mubarak’s rule. The brass live extraordinary privileged lives. They are own chunks of the economy. When they saw that the revolution could not be contained by the police they figured Mubarak days were numbered. At the end of any war there is a rush to get on the winning side to survive the aftermath. So the army made a very smart decision to move in and appear to be the people’s side.

From Leal we hear stories that the army itself continues many of the arrests, beating and detentions previously carried out by the police. This mornings’ paper repeats stories we have heard about the army carrying out forced virginity checks on female protesters they have arrested and detained.

In some ways getting arrested by the army is worse than by the police. If you are held by the army you can’t use a lawyer or a legal system to get you out. He said that even the activists want the police back so that one can at least have legal protection.

The unions

One place where there is a greater chance for social cohesion is the commonality of work.
We wanted to make sure to visit the union movement. Through my old friend Carl Finamore we are connected with the Center for Trade Union Rights and their director Kamal Abbas.

The labor movement has a long history of battle going back to the fight to kick out the Brits in 1914. Despite that the average worker is dirt poor. Many toil in a huge informal economy. The unions officials were often corrupt and in bed with the government. The revolution has turned that upside down.

In the critical days of Feb 8-11th when Mubarak was thinking he could ride this out, workers launched a wave of strikes across the country. Some say this was the final straw that drove him out. It may also drive out many of the old more corrupt labor officials. A new independent labor federation is being created. They hope to have 3 million members by the time of a founding convention in the fall.

This afternoon we are headed to the giant Mahalla textile mill (25,000) workers. With luck we can get in to talk with workers about their recent strike which netted them a 25% wage hike.

This mornings paper brings a story of the government passing a new law making some strikes illegal with a year’s imprisonment for “disrupting the economy”.

Kindness in the chaos

It is very hard to judge a national character as a brief visitor. The slice we see is too small to generalize. But we have seen extraordinary levels of just plain kindness and gentleness every day. Now it may be the joy of seeing a tourist given how rare we have become but it is not uncommon to hear “welcome!” shouted at you as you walk down the street. Egyptians call themselves kind and generous by nature. At the same time they say they are emotional and excitable. The fact that the intense noise, traffic, air pollution and stress of daily life does not create monsters amazes me every day.

For someone with auditory distractibility one of the worst aspects of the national character is the sport of beeping. It is a language I am learning to decipher. So far I’ve learned there is a quick ” beep beep” that is concern for you as a walker or a signal to the other guy to go ahead. There’s a “beeeep” that’s “get outta my way!” The worse is the “beeeeeeeeeeeeep !!!” that I think is the venting of one’s spleen at being stuck in a jam. Give a driver a half an inch and they are in front of you. Crossing traffic is an acquired skill, terrifying at first since there are few lights that are obeyed. You look up at the sky, say a prayer and then find a little gap in the traffic and start walking across it. You must trust that the waters will part for you. The drivers for the most part will adjust to you. Woe be to you if you break a normal stride.

A few notes on Islam

As I contemplate this enigma of a relative lack of depression despite the intense stress of Egyptian life, I previously mentioned the intense social connection as the main balm.
After visiting many mosques and speaking with Muslims I wonder if religion is another important element of psychic survival. To be a Muslim gives one a meaning and purpose in life and a sense that there is a benevolent god. These elements tend to be shared by most religions. It is mosque life that is a bit different. Praying five times a day means taking a fifteen minute break from the hustle to survive. You take off your shoes, enter a sacred space, focus your mind on the divine and do a bit of aerobics as you bow. Perhaps that provides just the amount of serenity needed to head back out to the rat race. However this custom appears to be only practiced by a minority. The alternative is intense hanging out in outdoor cafes drinking tea and chilling with a sheesha pipe (tobacco).

Most often you hear a certainty that the revolution will not lead to an Iranian style theocracy. That does not mean that the fundamentalist will not press their cause. The Muslim brotherhood is thought to be aiming for a Turkish solution state where an Islamic party rules a secular state.

What has been most interesting is the stories of young fundamentalists coming into the Tahrir and politics for the first time. They rub shoulders with political activists, non-believers, Coptics and women without veils. They discover that they have more in common with them than differences. Perhaps Islam is just a religious view and there are political and social views one can hold outside of it. This of course is threatening to some of the old line folks.

A visit to King Tut’s house

What’s a trip to Egypt without checking out the Museum of Antiquities housing the one of the greatest collection of antiquities in the world? So off we go. The collection is extraordinary. The
hieroglyphs are so clear and sharp one feels like you are reading a tabloid in a different language. The jewelry is astounding, the finest of minute craftsmanship from 4,000 years ago.
But it is a hard to see. The light comes from a bare bulb dangling from a wire. In fact the whole museum is one of the biggest dumps you can imagine. We are told this is because a new one is being built. Light is better upstairs in Tut’s room. The great gold death mask sits lonely in the middle of another dimly lit room. No guards, no gaggle of tourist around it. You feel like you could have stashed it beneath a large overcoat and walked out. This is the same masked that had folks lined up around the blocks when he visited Portland a few years back.

Leal tells us of a less noble use of the museum. The army would drag protesters in there and beat them in the backrooms. The tourists, people exactly like ourselves, provide cover for this. We didn’t hear a thing.

This mornings’ press brings a story of a threatened strike by hundreds of archeologists demanding a new minister of antiquities.

Asmaa tomorrow?

We have only two days left and one of them has to be the pyramids. Will we get to talk to Asmaa? Yesterday I get a message giving me her phone number but I get no answer. This morning a new message comes. She will be holding court for folks Friday afternoon. Then you can interview her. Who knows?

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3 Responses to Third blog from Cairo

  1. Molly Hite says:

    This is terrific reportage and analysis, John (and David, whom I presume is editing). I love the thinking through of post-revolutionary stasis, the second look at the army, the meditations on how un-depressed the “stressed” Egyptians are (I take it that these are technical terms, one for affect, the other for external demands on perceptions and feelings). Please keep up this kind of long report on various topics interspersed with rumination. It’s quite wonderful! Maybe there’s more than a film here. Molly

  2. Carl Finamore says:

    Hi Guys,

    Enjoyed very much your observations of life and politics. Would like to hear more of the reactions to the proposed law criminalizing protests and strikes. It is a real test of the power between the army and the revolution. My Best, Carl

  3. Martha Takaro says:

    Thank you for bringing such insight to the aftermath of this incredible revolution. I can’t wait for your return to tell us more.

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