Talking Politics in Egypt

Between the spotty internet access at the hostel and my efforts to cram as much sightseeing as humanly possibly into my first week in Egypt before my friend, who joined me for the journey out, heads back to New York, I’ve had little opportunity to keep abreast of the latest political developments. This morning, though, I did catch this article in the Washington Post, which warns of a “widening rift between Egyptians who support the military regime and those want them ousted.” It references the angry and sometimes violent receptions anti-regime activists encountered this week, as they fanned out beyond Tahrir Square to spread their revolutionary message and offer proof (in several instances, on giant video screens) of the military’s brutal crackdowns against peaceful protesters. In nearby Abbasiya, for instance, residents fed up with the protests they view as further destabilizing the country held a pro-SCAF rally in support of the ruling junta at which several journalists reported being roughed up by angry crowds.

I’ve only been here a few days now and certainly can’t claim to speak to the larger dynamics at work. But based on several conversations I have had with Egyptians–admittedly all of the middle class, well-educated variety–the atmosphere strikes me as tinged with considerably more gray than the pro-SCAF vs. anti-SCAF, vocal minority vs. silent majority narrative lets on. Those I’ve spoken to seem, by and large, in wait-and-see mode, keen on a swift transition to democracy but wary about things getting out of control. They’re skeptical about the military’s intentions but resigned to the fact that only the military can provide any semblance of security for the time being.

On our drive out to the pyramids on Friday, our guide asked us what we thought about the whole political situation. I demurred, safely responding that I thought that things were complicated and difficult to assess from the outside, before turning the question back on her. She was exactly what you might imagine a young Egyptian activists to be–twentysomething, highly-educated, dressed in a Gap sweatshirt and trendy jeans. But she was no fan of her fellow youth in the streets. She had supported the revolution, she explained, but couldn’t understand all the fuss these days. Elections were proceeding apace, no? (She proudly informed us that she’d voted in the first round of Egypt’s ongoing three-stage parliamentary election.) For now, she argued, the military was needed to preserve order. Was she concerned that SCAF might not cede power as promised after the presidential elections penciled in for June? She wasn’t. “If they don’t, there will be another revolution, and they know that.”

The next day, we met up with a couple young Egyptians–one a recent grad of American university in Cairo, the other still a student there. As we toured the breathtaking mosques and churches that dot the skyline of Old Cairo, the conversation naturally turned to politics. “It’s complicated,” one of them explained. “We want to see change, but we’re not sure what happens. Sometimes SCAF appears to be for democracy, sometimes it doesn’t.” Taking him to be one of the passive sympathizers whom the demonstrators are always imploring to join them in the streets, I asked if he had friends who were participating in the rallies in Tahrir. “Oh, I was there yesterday,” he replied, referring to Friday’s “restoring honor” demonstration that drew some 50,000 people to the square. “I go quite often.” At this point, we were wandering around an enclosed complex of a couple mosques and, of all things, the National Police Museum. I wondered if the large crowds would cause him to temper his words, but he carried on as before, alternating between sober analyses of the political climate and pointed jokes at the military’s expense. (Like most Egyptians his age, he’ll soon be conscripted.) Our trek continued through the narrow alleys of Islamic Cairo, where pickup trucks hauling gasoline drums and giant sacks of cotton sped through alleyways hardly wide enough to squeeze two pedestrians through at a time. Campaign posters for the local Muslim Brotherhood candidate adorned  nearly every lamp post. Yet amid the frenzied scene, lent a festive air by a smattering of Christmas lights, I seriously doubted anyone was talking politics.

Only in Tahrir itself was evidence of the ongoing conflict in plain sight. When my friend and I traipsed through in the early afternoon, the previous day’s crowds were gone. A handful of flag-waving protesters remained camped out in the middle of the square, unheeded by the circling swarm of cars around them. Off to the south end, fresh graffiti on a nearby building reading “FUCK SCAF” and “No SCAF” testified to simmering tensions, as did the concrete monstrosity one block beyond, erected by the military last week to seal off access to government buildings. A few curious observers approached and gazed for a while at the inartful barricade, but that was all. No one seemed to be spoiling for a fight on this day.

Once again, a tenuous calm seems to have taken hold in Cairo. How long it’ll last is anyone’s guess.

Anti-SCAF graffiti in Tahrir Square.Anti-SCAF graffiti in Tahrir Square.

A wall erected by the military last week on Qasr el-Neil Street.A wall erected by the military last week on Qasr el-Neil Street.


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