It has been a very surreal two days for us here in Egypt. We live in Maadi, and though there was one early account of a protest, the area has been quiet. Yesterday and today I have been monitoring the Twitter feeds, even after the service went down, allegedly at government behest, though they officially deny this. For those of you who are not Twitter-savvy, like myself, you can follow second-by-second coverage if you go to Google, type #Jan25 into search, and then watch people’s ‘tweets’ scroll down your screen.
Not everything here can be verified, of course, but it puts the urgency and immediacy of the moment right before your eyes. Yet, all around is calm and quiet. Certain websites have live feeds of news reports, carrying the stories that journalists and ordinary citizens report. Whereas yesterday, on Police Day, the protests were large-scale and generally tolerated until late in the evening, today’s reports tell of smaller numbers but greater resistance on the part of security forces.
My take, however ignorant: On Police Day I posted my expectations about the event, written the day before. I spoke about how Egypt was not like Tunisia, because while in Tunis the protests were driven by discontent with economic conditions led by the poor, and only later on joined by the middle class, in Egypt these protests seem to me to be upper and middle class driven. This can be seen by the great role Twitter and Facebook have played in rallying the cry for protest. But I also thought that the impact would fall short of Tunisia for this very reason. Frustrations of the middle class here run deep, but can they gain the numbers and sustain the pressure needed for wholesale change? I wondered, doubting.
As the protests swelled yesterday I, like everyone, including the government apparently, was surprised by the turnout. I was impressed by the generally peaceful nature of demonstrations – opposed to certain signs in Tunisia – as well as the restraint shown by the security forces. By the evening as nightfall came, greater efforts were made to displace the protestors, who seemed determined to stay the night in Cairo’s central square. Tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets were employed. At the same time, it could well be interpreted as reasonable efforts to preserve public order. Not that the protestors threatened violence, but that the government was keen to stop the event as carefully as possible, yet stop it all the same.
Today began very quietly. Early efforts to protest fizzled against opposition, but on a day to return to work, the numbers did not seem grand. Whereas the day before I wondered if my posted analysis would be rendered foolish very quickly, by the afternoon it seemed the efforts at demonstration represented an attempt to force the issue, to keep alive a fading spirit.
Yesterday afternoon Julie and I took the girls out to go shopping and for a bit of a walk. We live in a nice neighborhood in Maadi, which is certainly an upper class neighborhood by all standards. But we live not far from where the area blends into a lower class section, which is where Julie often shops at lower prices than if she walks in the opposite direction. As thousands of people were rallying downtown, we enjoyed a normal stroll in the busy streets, the same scenario played out day after day. There were no rumblings of protest, no efforts to stir trouble. It confirmed my thoughts further that this social media revolution might largely be akin to a spoiled teenager railing against a dysfunctional family. The issues are surely serious, but the stakes are not so large.
Further confirmation came with a phone call to the Upper Egyptian city of Maghagha, where we had visited for a few days. We enjoyed time again with our priest-family friends there, and will write about this soon. But in this sleepy, poorer town three hours south of Cairo, there were no demonstrations whatsoever. Most protests have been in Cairo and Alexandria; certainly there are many desperately poor people here, but it is also home to the middle class. Protests elsewhere have been in a Mediterranean costal city known as a labor stronghold, and in the Sinai where there are longstanding issues with the Bedouin. Much of Upper Egypt was quiet, which was not the case during recent legislative elections, when protest demonstrations against alleged electoral corruption were widespread.
Finally, more confirmation came in a visit to the area of Kozzika, which is a poorer neighborhood to the south of Maadi where I go twice weekly for my class in a Coptic Orthodox institute. Again, no signs of anger, trouble, or concern with the world. A local coffee shop had al-Jazeera broadcasting live coverage of an emerging protest in downtown Cairo, and no one paid any attention, as domino tiles slammed down against the table.
But after a few hours away from the computer and Twitter addictions, I came home to survey the news. Protests, it seems, are gaining steam as the night goes on. Security repression seems rather severe, but the result perhaps is to spur on more people to join in. As you follow the news you can get wrapped up in it – here is an especially chilling audio link from a foreign British journalist who was rounded up in the back of a police truck with dozens of protestors. It makes it seems as if the world is on fire.
Perhaps it is – there. Not here. In all I am about 12 kilometers away from what is happening. It might as well be worlds apart. Those there have such passion and fury from their cause in the moment; those here are sleeping peacefully, including my three young daughters. Do I wish to be there? Not really, exciting as it would be. Am I content here? Not quite. Egypt could be changing, or it could be a blip on the screen. Either way, I am disconnected, and the feeling of disconnection is fueled by the constant surveying of others’ passion and fury. Is it true? Is it widespread? Is it good?
Still, it is smaller than yesterday. Will tomorrow be smaller still? It is said that Egyptians are not revolutionary by character. Until about 60 years ago, the nation had been ruled by foreigners since the days of Alexander the Great. They move along in life, deal with economic realities, and do not rock the boat. Yesterday and today, they are trying to. Some, that is. Thousands, actually. Will it make a difference against a resolute government? A government backed by American support?
But, on the other hand, even thousands are but a drop in the bucket. In their non-participation, do the majority of Egyptians signal content relative enough to prove this is not an internal rumbling for democracy, but rather the pining of a frustrated middle class earning to imitate Tunisia and, however legitimately, increase its sphere of freedoms? The government does not do a great job of eradicating poverty, but it heavily subsidizes basic goods. Are the majority of the poor content enough along their historical pattern, unconcerned by exclusion from political life? Will the protests eventually fizzle as the middle class aspirations are beaten down?
By and large, these have been secular protests, and notably, Egypt is a religious society. I would like to explore this question further tomorrow, if possible, but the call is circulating on Twitter that protestors are regrouping, and calling for nationwide participation following Friday prayers. Will Egyptians emerge from the mosque and take to the streets? This is looking like the next big question, unless tomorrow has more surprises. But will the population rally around a non-religious cause? It remains to be seen.
So what is my take, after all of this? It is best to hold judgment. I would encourage all to pray. The president needs wisdom, as do advisors, police chiefs, and protestors. There are deaths and injuries, and these cannot please God. Yet there are aspirations and hopes, and perhaps these do. May he sift the chaff from the wheat and bring about a society pleasing to all. Far less importantly, may he also give armchair observers sitting in Maadi the ability to be as constructive as possible.