For those of us who were part of Egypt’s revolution, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s new series of works, “Our House Is On Fire,” captures a reality that surrounds us, yet has been all but overlooked in the continuing story of the Arab uprisings: the reality of a country struggling with despair.
That winter we all became activists. We opened Twitter accounts, many of us, and learned how to dress for winter nights in Tahrir Square. I thought, we all thought, that the euphoria, the sense of possibility, would carry the country for years. As Jehane Noujaim’s documentary, The Square, vividly depicts, not only did we forget, but the euphoria quickly dissipated.
The events in Cairo of August 14, in which Egyptian security forces confronted thousands of supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, were widely covered around the world. Most reports have described the protesters as unarmed and peaceful. However it was clear, both from what I witnessed on the ground and from extensive footage recording the events that day, that a faction of the protesters were heavily armed, and that both Islamists and the police used live ammunition in the confrontation that followed.
They came to the Cairo morgue looking for bodies. This was nearly a month before the Egyptian police confronted the Muslim Brotherhood on August 14. A woman whose husband hadn’t come home in three days, a couple whose son had been absent for a week, three relatives looking for a man, Karam, who had been missing for nine days. He had last been seen on July 2, on his way to his mother’s apartment. He had taken a taxi there and neighbors saw him get out at the main street. There was fighting in the neighborhood between the residents and members of the Brotherhood, and people cautioned him against entering the alley that turned onto another alley that led to his mother’s building.
In 1966, a little-known young Egyptian named Sonallah Ibrahim self-published his experimental first novel, That Smell, at a small printing press in downtown Cairo. It was a time of crisis and change in Egypt, as the country negotiated a transition from British occupation to Nasserism, much as today it struggles to deal with a shift from the Mubarak era to an emergent Islamist authoritarianism. Ibrahim, a former student activist and journalist who had spent five years in prison on charges related to his activity in the Communist party, was sensitive to the omnipresence of the state in everyday life, but also to the inability of Arabic literature to express and capture that reality. That Smell—now published in English in a brilliant new translation by Robyn Creswell—was Ibrahim’s breathtakingly subversive answer to this problem and met with immediate censorship.
When Mohammed Morsi took office last summer, the big question was whether he would be able to separate himself from the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that had authorized, guided, and financed his presidential campaign. By this winter, the public seemed to accept the fact that there was no alternative to Morsi’s Brotherhood running the show. As a source close to the Brotherhood’s leaders told me, “Morsi is simply overseeing the presidential portfolio on behalf of the Supreme Guide’s Office, and so in negotiating with him you are simply speaking to a messenger.”
One measure of how complicated Egyptian politics has become is that hardly anyone was surprised by the outcome of the constitutional referendum in late December. Amid the largest anti-government protests since the 2011 revolution, and following defections from his own cabinet and supporters, President Mohamed Morsi orchestrated a 64 percent approval vote for a new constitution. It had been hastily drawn up by his political allies and subjected to withering criticism; and there was low voter turnout and widespread indications of tampering. Nonetheless, the result seemed to show that, for all the millions of Egyptians who have lost patience with the new leadership, there are many others who continue to crave stability, even if the price is another authoritarian government.
Although it has a state-of-the-art computerized system to deal with arrivals, Cairo’s new airport stubbornly deploys several uniformed officers to triple-check what the computer has confirmed. Armed men glance speculatively at the traveler’s coin-sized arrival stamp bearing the day’s date and a small outline of an airplane, along with six mentions of “Egypt.” Such is the logic of the country—an administration that has achieved supremacy in the creation of idle jobs. Duplicity is its mainstay.
From their position as the apparent protectors of last year’s revolution, Egypt’s military rulers have been pushed into increasingly brutal confrontations with civilians—at Maspero in October, during the run-up to elections in November, and most recently, during a week of mayhem in mid December. Peaceful protesters are arbitrarily being arrested and thrown in jail; and the army’s estrangement from the activists who led the revolution is visible in the newly-erected concrete walls that sever downtown streets to separate its forces from the people. These spasms of violence, as important to the future of Egypt as the outcome of elections, often seem to have a logic of their own; December’s episode was set off by a chain of events few could have predicted.
It has been almost one year since Hosni Mubarak gave up power, and in the months since then, the future of a newly democratic Egypt has been uncertain. The political transition all but stalled this past summer, as tensions between Muslims and Copts erupted, street violence flared, and the various factions repeatedly disagreed on the form the new Egypt should have. This fall, the military council now ruling the country was itself drawn into violent conflict with protesters, leading to more than forty deaths in a single week. Many wondered, amid all this, if a democratically elected civilian government would ever take office.
Few people I know in Cairo got much sleep last Sunday night. The voting stations were set to open at 8AM the following morning, and everyone was concerned that the day would be marred by the increasingly lethal violence we have witnessed in recent weeks. “I’m going to go as early as possible, before it gets crowded or anything bad happens,” my mother had told me. It seemed everyone had thought the same— by the time I reached my neighborhood voting station at 7:15AM Monday, it was already packed—there were at least 2,000 people there. A friend called me from her own voting station about 40 minutes away as I arrived, saying she couldn’t even see the end of the line.
On the morning of Sunday, October 9, members of Cairo’s large Coptic community went to the Abbasiya Cathedral, the papal headquarters of the Coptic Church. They prayed, as a Coptic youth leader told me, “for the day to begin and end peacefully, and for a million people to turn up” at the protest march to the State TV Building planned for that afternoon. But the day would be far from peaceful: by its end, more than two dozen civilians, many of them Copts, and several soldiers, would be dead; and in the days since, many Egyptians have come to regard the events surrounding the march as a dark turning point in the country’s bid to build an inclusive democratic society.
The Israeli embassy in Cairo is tucked away on the top two levels of a 21-floor residential tower ten minutes from Tahrir. It is flanked by graying buildings and a usually traffic-clogged bridge. Nearby are Cairo University and the National Zoo. In the past, its busy location served it well; it was inconspicuous, and under Mubarak, the security around the building was so tight that even reaching the barricades surrounding it felt like a feat. In one of the more revealing signs of change in the New Egypt, however, it has now become the focus of the public’s attention and the site of unobstructed demonstrations.
We all watched the proceedings mesmerized, shaken by the irony that on the very same podium where Mubarak once was applauded now sat Ahmed Rifaat, head of the Cairo Appeals Court and the judge appointed to try him. For the first time that day, State TV dropped “former,” and referred to Mubarak as the “deposed” President. He was now a man officially behind bars.
The forty-year-old Virgin Mary Church on Cairo’s al-Wahda Street—the name means unity, or oneness—looks striking these days. Its cream and white façade is unscathed by the dust and smog that otherwise blanket neighboring buildings and the rest of the city, and inside, its walls and floors glisten with newly laid cappuccino-colored marble. The church, its guardians say, has never looked better. “Ever, in its entire history.” On May 8, this church, in the impoverished Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba, a ten-minute drive from Tahrir Square, was a scene of devastation. It had been ravaged by flames and its insides gutted, smashed, looted, and charred after clashes broke out between Muslims and Christians.
On a recent afternoon this month, in a busy downtown Cairo street, armed men exchanged gunfire, threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, and freely wielded knives in broad daylight. The two-hour fight, which began as an attempt by some shop-owners to extort the customers of others, left eighty-nine wounded and many stores destroyed. In the new Egypt, incidents like this are becoming commonplace. On many nights I go to bed to the sound of gunfire, and each morning I leaf through newspapers anticipating more stories of crime.
To judge by the streets of Cairo on the morning of March 19, it seemed that a good chunk of my city’s 19 million residents were taking part in the constitutional referendum. The roaring old school buses that rattle my windows when they pass in the morning were not to …
To judge by the streets of Cairo on the morning of March 19, it seemed that a good chunk of my city’s 19 million residents were taking part in the constitutional referendum. The roaring old school buses that rattle my windows when they pass in the morning were not to be heard, there were hardly any cars on the usually clogged streets, and the daily flood of people making their way through the dense web of thoroughfares and alleyways was absent. The only signs of traffic or crowds were around the hundreds of designated polling stations. It had been nearly five weeks since protesters in Tahrir Square had brought down President Hosni Mubarak, and Egyptians all over the country were voting on an all-or-nothing package of nine constitutional amendments. A win for the Yes votes promised to lead to parliamentary elections as early as June, returning power to a civilian government following the military’s temporary takeover. If the No votes prevailed, it might start the process of political reform over again, or it might cause the military to pursue a different strategy.
It has been twelve days since Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of the republic, and the country—although still celebrating—has never been more divided. Many feel that the revolution has succeeded and it is time for everyone to get back to work. Many more feel that his ousting is but a small first step on a long and tortuous road. On February 18, as millions of people came out again to the streets of downtown Cairo and central Tahrir Square for Friday prayers, and as much smaller numbers marched again on Tuesday, the fragmentation of the protest movement was clear, and a new question loomed: what exactly do we want now as a nation, and are we willing to continue fighting for it?
It was around 3 PM on Friday that we began to feel it might be over. Earlier, there had been fears of a new government crackdown, as protesters, still seething from Mubarak’s defiant speech and Suleiman’s call for people to go home the night before, had promised to make the eighteenth day of revolution the largest yet. By early afternoon, those worries had faded. The streets had filled with marching, chanting people, and in Tahrir Square the growing crowd seemed to surge with positive energy. Again there was possibility. Mubarak’s speech had been a point of no return, and everyone I knew—even those who hadn’t taken part in the protests until now—said that they would be out calling for his departure after the Friday prayer.
On Thursday evening, sixteen days after thousands of Egyptians converged on Cairo’s central square to bring an end to a thirty-year-old dictatorship, it seemed that the moment we had been waiting for had finally come. Around 6 PM, rumors began circulating that Mubarak was preparing to step down, and later, Egyptian State TV confirmed he would be making an announcement—his second since the protests began. People started to pour into the streets near Tahrir Square shouting “Yay, yay, yay, Hosni is leaving today,” and cars were honking as if in victory.
As the evening went on and the speech was delayed, however, the crowd became quieter, many murmuring fears that perhaps the resignation wouldn’t happen. Some people sat on the pavement of Tahrir, others stood, waiting and anxious. Standing near me, Shahira Amin—the news anchor who resigned from her State television post last week to protest the government’s propaganda—said her stomach was in knots. When the speech began at last, a little after 11 PM—broadcast on loudspeakers across the square—it was quickly apparent that Mubarak was not going to concede much of anything. At first, people listened in stunned silence as he rambled on about “those” who were responsible for the violence being held to account. When he spoke of “foreign interference” some minutes into the speech, the crowd booed. People began to shout when he mentioned handing powers to longtime regime insider and now Vice President Omar Suleiman. And they erupted in anger when it became clear that he had no plans to step down.
On Tuesday, February 1, we headed to Tahrir Square for the “million man” march with some apprehension. After a week of growing protests, the military, which had arrived on Friday, had increased its presence in downtown Cairo, and the perimeter of the square was now completely barricaded with concrete blocks and metal barriers. Just two narrow entryways had been left—each manned by a dozen soldiers and just as many civilian volunteers. Despite the soldiers’ promise not to use force, many of us who entered the square wondered if they would trap us inside, and then, perhaps even shoot. By 4 PM however—well after the 3 PM curfew set by the military—we knew no harm would come, and the protest turned into something of a festival.
The army and the protesters worked together to weed out infiltrators trying to stir up trouble, and the crowd began chanting about the people and army being one. Estimates of the turnout varied, from one million to three. There was barely an empty square foot in the entire square and adjoining streets; people sang, played cards, shared meals, and later in the evening, began to talk of holding a soccer tournament, together with the army. One Al Jazeera correspondent compared it to a rock concert. People spoke of feeling pride at being Egyptian, some of them for the first time in their lives.
On Thursday evening, January 27, activists in Cairo were on Twitter discussing the second wave of protests, which were supposed to begin after Friday’s midday prayer. Two days earlier, tens of thousands of people had taken to the streets and, despite a violent response by police and thugs, succeeded in occupying Tahrir Square; this time, it was hoped, many more would join in the peaceful revolt.
Cairo on the morning of January 25 felt like something of a ghost town. Few civilians were to be found on the streets, most stores were shuttered, and the typically heaving downtown was deserted. It was a national holiday, and in the central town square, named Tahrir, or Liberation, even cars were scarce, and parking spaces—always sparse—were in abundance. The only conspicuous presence was that of Egypt’s police and state security. Rows of their box-shaped olive-green trucks lined thoroughfares and narrow side-streets, in some cases blocking them off for miles. Beside them were battered cobalt blue trucks—the ones used to whisk away prisoners and detainees. Throughout the downtown area and in neighboring districts, police and informants (easily identified by their loitering presence, darting eyes, and frequent two-second phone calls) were gathered around the otherwise empty major arteries of the city. Hundreds of them. Many wore black cargo pants, bush jackets and clunky army boots. Many more were in plain clothes—standing on street corners, at calculated intervals on sidewalks, in building entrances, on bridges, and in the few cafes open on a day when almost everything was closed.