Monday, February 4, 2013

The January Revolution: Unrest Continues Two Year Later.

My intention was to post part II of last weeks post, but with all that is happening in Egypt right now I think there are more pressing topics that should be discussed at the moment. The best way to tackle the current events of Egypt and my experience living here at the moment is to break it into two parts, first dealing with the events themselves, how they are being portrayed, and what it could mean for the country. Next is to talk about what the protests mean to me as a foreign student in Cairo. I will link to articles for more in-depth discussion on a topic when appropriate.

Part I.

Images and stories about the growing unrest throughout Egypt are widely circulated, and Egypt’s political situation is becoming a common feature in the news of the world. Over the past months street politics has reemerged as a feature of the Egyptian political process. December saw the opposition leftist and liberal parties clashing with police and pro-Mursi /Salafi groups over the fast tracking of the country’s controversial new constitution. Aside from the resurgence of anti-government demonstrations, this flash of violent unrest was significant because it featured deadly clashes between citizen groups, which many thought could lead to full scale civil war.
The latest protests began on the eve of January 25th, the two-year anniversary of the revolution that ousted the Mubarak regime and ended his thirty-year dictatorship. Since then it as become more complex, especially with the January 26th court verdict which dispensed the death penalty to twenty-one citizens of Port Said for their involvement in the February 2012 football riots that killed more than seventy people. To many in Port Said this sentence is excessively harsh and an attempt to pacify the threats of reprisals against the accused if the courts did not issue capital punishment. The violence in Port Said escalated when police interfered with a funeral precession for those killed in the riots of the previous day. The conflict between the demonstrators and President Mursi, in his efforts to stem the violence, seems like a tour de force to determine where the true power lies.
Egypt’s youth have taken to the streets to express their discontent with the current state of affairs in Egypt. At the heart of the problem is the deep seeded feeling of betrayal of the revolutionary ideology by Mursi’s government, which has been accused of hijacking the revolution and imposing the Salafist agenda on the country. Rather than work to rebuild the countries ailing economy, President Mursi is seen by many to be solidifying his power to insure the longevity of his party. 
The government’s mismanagement of its police forces in its attempts to quell the unrest has led to greater dissatisfaction, as the security forces are being sent into situations vastly understaffed and ill equipped to effectively handle the situation. This has forced the police to become increasingly violent toward the protestors in order to protect themselves and carry out their orders. The police forces feel that the government has abandoned them, as they have become the focus of the protestors’ anger.
A sign of further deterioration of civility in the demonstrations is the increased activity on the part of Baltagiya, thugs. During the waning moments of the Mubarak era, similar groups roamed the streets of Cairo, harassing and beating citizens. It is and was widely suspected that the government had turned to these groups in a last grasp at reestablishing control through coercion and intimidation. Now the baltagiya intermingle with the protestors acting swiftly to subvert their efforts. They use intimidation tactics in hopes of frightening away the support base for the protests.  The presence of Baltagiya in the latest rounds of protests has fueled the sentiment that the Mursi administration is nothing more than a continuation of the Mubarak dictatorship.
It is an ugly reality that the baltagiya are targeting women, and accounts of sexual assaults and rape in Tahrir Square are prevalent. Some of these attacks have been impulsive acts of aggression expressed through mob mentality toward vulnerable women, however the majority of these attacks can be attributed to organized thugs, attempting to use brutal sexual violation as a means of deterring Egyptian women from voicing their opinions and exercising their right to assembly. Fortunately citizen groups have responded to this loathsome violence and have begun to organize with the mission of protecting female protestors, aiding women in distress and proving services and support to the victims of sexual assault.
The atmosphere is emotional and anger has taken hold. The lack of trust between political factions has resulted in the weakening of political power as a whole. The left has accused the president of reinstating the autocracy that the revolution sought to over throw, and the right accuses the left of subverting the democratic process. Both sides of the political spectrum declare themselves as the standard bearers of a Democratic Egypt, and both sides are pushing each other further toward the actions they have been accused of. Over the last week both sides have escalated their efforts, and now each side is fighting with fire, which has resulted in a much bigger fire. Neither side wants to back down, and thus is forcing the other to meet the challenge, and the results could be catastrophic for the country.

Part II.

It is a nearly daily occurrence that I receive an inquiry about my safety and the political atmosphere from a relative or friend. And I have developed a go to explanation of the situation and reassurance of my safety, ‘the situation is pretty dynamic, but Cairo is a very big city and the violence is not as widespread as the news might make it out to be. It is taking place in pockets around the city, focal points if you will. But yes it is an exciting time to be living in Cairo.’ Describing the political situation as ‘dynamic,’ is my diplomatic way of stating that there is little certainty about the current state of affairs. I am certain that unless I go looking for it, trouble is not immediately apparent.
In order to stay informed about the finer points of the current events, I have spent the last week and a half devouring every article and piece of information I can get my hands on. I have become much better at skimming news headlines looking for the latest reports about the current bout of unrest. If I were to rely on this coverage I would think that I was living in a war zone and in order to get home I had walking through the burned out hulls of patty wagons and the smoldering remains of governmental infrastructure. These articles have an eye for the dramatic, and reading them can often provide as much misinformation as information. They cultivate a sense of imminent doom for everyone in Cairo because it is exciting and that is the kind of headline that moves newspapers. I am not going to say that doom is not a possibility, but it is very improbable. The exception to the dramatization of events are the reports of sexual assault, these articles deserve as much headline space as possible. Because of how despicable these attacks are is impossible to sensationalize this aspect of the situation.
The articles reporting on the street violence fail to illustrate that the protests and riots are focused in isolated areas. The majority of the city/cities is/are not affected by the unrest. Depending on location and interest it could be possible to be totally ignorant of Egypt’s political unrest and street politics. If not for my own interest, the twenty-four hour news cycles, the bombardment of emails from the AUC and US embassy providing updates and offering obvious safety tips, and the increased commute time from point A to point anywhere else, I could be completely oblivious of the current situation.
When it comes to attending the demonstrations I am torn. There is a part of me that is drawn to the energy and enthusiasm of the movement. To be apart of the crowd and add my voice to the chants, to be a part of the revolution, to be a part of history. It would be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Furthermore, it would make a great story. But in the end the story is the only motivation. I have nothing at stake in regards to Egyptian politics and even less to offer. My presence would add little to nothing to Egypt’s pursuit of democracy. When all is said and done I will get on a plane in June and return to California. Whether or not I ever return to Egypt is my decision. The masses in Tahrir Square do not have the luxury of returning home, they are busy rebuilding theirs. Attending the protests would be totally self-serving, not to mention carelessly dangerous. Gawking at the ‘spectacle’ of it all in order to add the story bank only cheapens the efforts of the protestors.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Bribing Doomsday: An Evening at the Pyramids (Part I)

It been far too long since I sat down and thought about writing for JunketAbroad, and I have missed it. Since we last spoke I applied to graduate school, a significant drain on my creative energy, studied for and took my final exams, and traveled around Turkey. Now that I am settled back in Cairo I have been working on a couple of new posts that I hope will get me back into the swing of things.

The Pyramids of Giza are the kind of mysterious that forces the mind into action in hopes of discovering their forgotten secrets. These secretes tease the tips of the imagination, as if through deeper thought and imaginative exploration it could be possible to ascertain the exact manner in which the Pyramids were constructed, and their true purpose. Part of the mystery comes from the nagging feeling that there is certainly more to them than meets the eyes because it is nearly impossible to accept that there is nothing special about them apart from their immense size and beauty. It is inconceivable to imagine that things so extraordinary were built solely to house the decaying bodies enshrined in their depths. But perhaps this is their greatest power, to excite the imagination.
It is my opinion that our current understanding of the Pyramids is superficial at best. I say this because the explanations do not effectively address many of the questions that plague any discussion of their origins, especially with regards to their construction. As a result speculation is rampant and creative. Perhaps they are actually the remnants of long lost power and understanding bestowed to the ancients by aliens. Perhaps there is a lost codex that will shed light their true nature and provide context for unlocking the mysteries of the universe. This seems just as plausible as hundreds of thousands of slaves dragging the enormous stones cut and polished to perfection with other stones across the sand in the desert heat. Ok well maybe not just as plausible, but as long as we are making things up why not get creative.
Whatever the case may be it is undeniable that there is something extraordinary about them, but it is almost impossible to put it into words. This undefined quality makes your skin crawl and your body tingle with excitement and foreboding. They are huge. They are old. They are perfect. All of the superlatives capable of describing the Pyramids have been exhausted, and they are all true.
I will freely admit that I want to believe the Pyramids posses magical powers or play a key role in a larger phenomenon. What can I say I get excited by the implications of the speculations. My experience with the Pyramids has made me pretty confident that if the world is going to end as a result of something other human agency, the Pyramids will be the epicenter of some pretty spectacular stuff. Potentially. So naturally I planned to be at the Pyramids on December 21st, the latest in doomsday predictions, just in case, and because I could.
 I intended to go to the Pyramids in the early evening, just in time to watch the heavens open up and the mother-ship return to enlighten us, and/or to watch the fire and brimstone rain down upon us as the faithful are raptured away from the blooming hell-scape that was earth. I was also petty confidant that the apocalypse would be an evening affair, its more dramatic that way… and there had been no mother-ship nor fire and brimstone when I woke up that morning.
Preoccupied with my theories on the likely schedule of destruction I did not thinking twice about hours of operation of the Pyramids, it was doomsday after all who could think about something so trivial at a time like that! I climbed into a cab and said, ‘Al-Ahramet (the pyramids) and step on it,’ (I didn’t actually say that last part, my Arabic is not that good yet). Its good to know that even on doomsday, when every last moment of existence is precious, Cairo’s traffic is still so unbearable it made me beg for the end to come quicker.
It was a stroke of luck that our taxi was flagged down by an Egyptian man standing at the side of the road. He spoke to the driver in Arabic for a moment and then hopped onto the trunk of the cab and proceeded to give the driver directions through a maze of side streets and allies. From what I was able to gather from their conversation there may have been some kind of protest or demonstration that was causing the back up, and by following his directions we would avoid a prolonged wait. Whether or not this was the case, our self appointed navigator was actually directing us to his business in hopes of enticing us to hire his services as a guide on a camel tour of the Pyramids. I should not have been surprised that this was his intention, and though I was annoyed by his ploy I did not see the opportunity that his actions had provided. And after our detour through the back allies of Giza we found ourselves at the back gate of the park.
My lack of foresight in regards to the hours of operation meant that we were going to arrive at Pyramids after they had closed for the day, and perhaps eternity. Until then I had not considered the possibility that it would not be possible to see the Pyramids up close because they were closed. Before even stepping out of the cab we were approached by a man who told us that the park was closed for the day, but offered to get us into the park for the price of admission, sixty Egyptian Pounds, paid to him rather than to the ticket office. This payment would not only get us in, but he offered to be our guide and personal attaché for dealing with the park’s security staff who would surely question our presence at the park after dark.
In the waning hours of daylight on the last day of the world as we know it I found myself on a private tour of the nearly deserted park, which is usually swamped with tourists and vendors. Needless to say the world did not end while we were there, oh well, but the experience was still pretty unforgettable, highlighted by a spectacular sunset. By standing in just the right spot the Sphinx was silhouetted against the three Pyramids, aligned and bathed in a warm glow.

To be continued…

TL;DR I bribed a guy to let me see the Pyramids after they were closed. It was great!