As Tahrir burns, becoming obscured in a fog of tear gas and chaos (that night most clashes actually took place at the Presidential Palace,) I sit in a posh bar in the Zamalek neighborhood listening to jazz, sipping a cold beer. I am literally on an island in the middle of Cairo. I ask someone sitting at the table, a friend of a friend, what he thinks is happening in Tahrir right now. “Nothing good,” he says.
Nearing-middle age, he is half Egyptian, having grown up in the United Kingdom, moving back to Cairo in his adult life. “All the people I know who helped start this [revolution] are now working on initiatives, working in civil societies.” He is the typical social entrepreneur type- highly educated with liberal values, a mind for environmental sustainability and sensible development.
“The people in Tahrir now are different,” he says. Well-known amongst certain circles of Cairo’s development-savvy cosmopolitan 30-somethings, this friend-of-a-friend was a key figure in establishing an open source innovation and sustainable development platform called ICE Cairo. “My revolution is no longer in Tahrir,” he explains. “Though I missed most of the action. I was stuck in the U.K for most of it.” I cannot find anything in common with him and the young people I ran with near the square two hours earlier, except a genuine desire for a change and a vision for a better Egypt.
There are pockets of Cairo that look like the apocalypse we’ve all been waiting for. One-ton blocks of concrete, stacked by the police create improvised walls, now adorned with ironic street art, bar entrance to Mohammad Mahoud St. in Cairo’s crumbling downtown. Metal and cement barricades still inhabit once busy streets around Tahrir, stemming the flow of traffic to a semi-cautious trickle (if there is such a thing in Cairo.) Broken windows, once simply a part of Egypt’s aesthetic of corruption, now signal something else. The former headquarters of disposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, located at Tahrir, is now a bombed out skeleton of a building, fenced off and kept as a massive trophy for all to gaze upon.
Being in Tahrir Square was a reminder of the very real possibilities of a police state materializing overnight- a glimpse into a potential future. Seeing the utter ease at which a faceless block of militarized police can disperse, terrify, and even kill a group of young protesters sheds light on the technologies of oppression that have been developed by equally faceless corporations. Raytheon, Halliburton, or CSI (Combined Systems Inc.)- none had their marks on the spent tear gas canister shown to me by a young Egyptian who had it shot into his leg. The only legible letters were USA.
Dramatized by Hollywood films, television programs, and playfully invoked at counter-cultural events like Burning Man, the collapsed or militarized police state of the 21st century is not an imagined narrative depicted on a screen. It is Egypt. Greece. Syria. It is Northern Mali and Nigeria. It is Palestine. Its is a bleak reality characterized by hardship, struggle, and government-sponsored brutality. It is not a party in the Nevada desert, no matter how inspiring and beautiful that may be.
The reality is that this bleak future lurks just beneath the surface of our civilization, behind television screens and in dark corners of the internet, trickling through to our collective unconscious. Images of overweight riot police diffusing pepper spray into the face of peaceful university protesters and instances of excessive use of force are now integrated into our culture. Are these state-sponsored actions accepted, ignored, or merely forgotten by our media-saturated culture? Like a 50-year bookend, the Arab Springs and the Occupy movements of today are continuing, perhaps finishing what was started in the political and social movements of the 1960’s.
Perhaps the most poignant factor in all of this is the emotional weight, the experiences of loss, and the vision of hope carried by nearly every Egyptian I met. The depth of emotions, both of sadness and hope, the stories, the tears, and the blood, still stain the streets.
For example, someone who is now a dear friend of mine was shot in the back during the revolution. She lay the street for nearly two hours, bleeding, and breathing in the “non-lethal” tear gas until her blood was heavily poisoned. She told me about coming back to consciousness, and seeing her friends, fully grown men, bawling their eyes out like children, taking shelter on the concrete. When I see this person today, gracefully navigating through her native city where her ancestors walked generations ago, I cannot help but feel profoundly moved.
“I faced death,” she told me, “and now I live my life in a completely different way. The revolution, Tahrir, it is like something spiritual for me.” I asked her what she hoped the outcome of all of this would be. “All I know,” she said, “is that I want my children, and my grandchildren, to continue this revolution. It does not end with me.”
My table-mates in Zamalek continued talking of how things in Tahrir had change since the revolution. There has been increasing incidents of sexual harassment against women, with many suspecting some level of organization behind the mass gropings. “My office is right next to Tahrir, so I have to drive near it every day,” he explains, telling the story of how a young kid through a rock at his windshield for no apparent reason. “Just being a stupid kid” I murmured. “Maybe. But things like this did not happen before.”
“Now we have the black block, and I have no idea where that came from,” he explains. The black block, as it’s called, is an action strategy utilized by protesters and anarchists throughout the United States and Europe, and apparently now Egypt. It is invoked to incite acts of direct resistance, general mayhem, and violence, usually directed at corporate property and the police. They are also characterized by their ubiquitous black masks and clothing. “Mixing violence and anonymity is a really, really bad combination.” Noted.
We continued talking, discussing the potential of this anonymous, militant group to become co-opted, developing into a para-military military force like we have seen in South America’s FARC, the LRA and other rebel factions in parts of Africa, Ireland’s IRA, and of course, the Taliban. “There is the potential for this group to start being trained and funded by elements of the former regime, in turn adding credibility to the Muslim Brotherhood.” All the ingredients necessary to initiate a proxy war, like what is now happening in Syria, exist in Egypt. Perhaps the only thing keeping this shady style of clandestine warfare at bay is the heart-felt passion and hope of the Egyptian people.
It is safe to say that Cairo is a provocative place, an ancient center of life and culture that one cannot help but feel enticed by. Yes, it is a city immersed in trash, pollution, and stench- everything either needing, or recovering from some type of repair, including the people. Yet, wandering through Cairo’s old Islamic quarter, drinking Turkish coffee in the courtyards of decadent 13th century mosques, the vibrant night scented with Oud and spices, I felt as if in a beautiful and romantic dream. There is a reason Cairo was known as the “Paris of the East.” If there is any positive hope for Cairo, it lies in her people- a vivacious, beautiful, and politically charged collection of characters that will not give up, at any cost.
Al Qahira, Um Al Dunia, (Cairo, Mother of the World,) please try and stay in one piece. At least until I return.