Thursday, March 10, 2011

Growing Pains

I live in two worlds. One appears to have changed little. The other is, at times, unrecognizable. Life at AUC persists despite the upheaval of a new nation forming around it, still filled with deadlines, class discussions, lesson plans, young, rich Arabs texting their friends on their BB while I try to explain the concepts of oral presentations. My students this semester have mixed opinions on the “revolution”, several supporting it, several indifferent, and several missing Mubarek. My supervisors, in our department meetings, push forward with the semester with little acknowledgement that the world in which we live in has changed, irrevocably.

Yesterday, I walked down to Tahrir, as usual, to catch the 4:00 pm bus that will whisk me far away from the city center to the New Campus. Qasr El Aini, the street that leads into Tahrir, continues to undergo a transmutation almost daily. In the beginning, tanks sat parked on almost every block, manned by soldiers wielding machine guns and bored expressions, eating foul sandwiches and reading newspapers as Cairo flowed past on foot and wheel. The tanks disappeared about a week ago, steel treads rumbling towards the Interior Ministry to form a formidable phalanx around its perimeter to deter protesters from breaching its inscrutable walls. Now, soldiers and a few armored vehicles still remain inside the numerous government buildings that line Qasr El Aini, regarding the passing masses with warier eyes.

The seemingly immutable trust between the people and the army is fracturing, bit by bit, although it yet persists. Yesterday, the square was tense, more tense than usual, the tent city in the Square still remaining, though diminished in size, guarded by grim-faced protesters. My bus was late, as usual, and those of us with 5 pm classes hustled aboard, willing traffic to magically dissipate along the typically congested arteries of Cairo. As the bus inched its way through Tahrir, I saw piles of torn-up paving stones lining the sidewalks and men standing beside them, watching. Clusters of men, some protesters, some likely thugs, loitering in the street and alleyways around the square. At the Egyptian Museum, traffic stalled (big surprise) and my fellow passengers glanced nervously out the window as people ran past. A man clutched the arm of his wife, dragging them both quickly away from an apparent confrontation. I walked to the back of the bus and peeked out the windows, seeing groups of men scuffling in the streets, rocks being thrown, and chaos filling the air, further blocking traffic. Everyone on the bus quickly shut the curtains and I reluctantly shut my own as the bus inched forward to reach the overpass that would carry us away from Tahrir. Warning shots from the military echoed, and as the bus darted forward I saw a tank head towards the fighting in a belated attempt to break up the tussles.

Twitter later told me that the military physically dismantled the tent city, trampling the tents and chasing out the remaining protesters with clubs and probable violence. At that time, I was sitting in my grad class, attempting to engage in a discussion on the differences between qualitative and quantitative research, although my thoughts remained beyond the stubborn, disregarding walls of AUC. How do you disengage yourself from an entire nation jostling to determine its future to focus on something as mundane as school? I do, of course, because I do hope to graduate, but it is frustratingly difficult, particularly when even the routes to school are fraught with the uncertainty of revolution. The burbling fountains and high-tech classrooms at AUC are a complete dettachment from the reality of Cairo. Education is the key to the revolution's success, so I do not think AUC, at this point, should cancel classes. I'm not sure what I wish, actually, but I do hope they begin to recognize, more and more, the complications involved in holding this semester.

Last Thursday (was it only a week ago?), I was faced with, once again, the divergence of AUC and real life. My then-abode on the island of Menial became, within the course of an evening, an entirely untenable situation. Ever since the revolution, Menial, a stolidly middle to lower middle class neighborhood, has been experiencing the growing pains of the revolution. This heady new freedom people are experiencing has been translated into a thousand actions- clean-up crews in the streets of Cairo hoping to beautify the streets, patriotic songs on television, flag sellers in Tahrir, posters of martyrs around the city, a bouncy jaunt in people's steps, labor strikes to demand better working conditions, continued protests to call for complete regime change, and a boldness that accompanies a relatively lawless society without police and a crumbling state security.

In Menial in particular, and, I suspect, in most of the poorer neighborhoods of Cairo, this means armed gangs controlling the streets at night, and not the friendly local militia that emerged during the revolution to protect their homes from looters. No, these seem to be the men who enjoyed that brief wielding of weapons and power, the men that exist in every society that resort to violence and fear when given the opportunity. This is not to say that, stepping outside of my house in Menial, I was immediately confronted by them (not that I tried), but they were present, certainly. Their primary aim seemed to be fighting with local gangs in the neighborhood across the Nile, Old Cairo, firing shots, lobbing Molotov cocktails, flashing knives, etc. Most of Menial was actually quite calm, stores and cafes being open until the midnight curfew, life stepping around this new element.

But I was not terribly comfortable with the situation. The more upper-class areas of Cairo, namely Garden City, Downtown, Dokki, Mohendiseen, Zamalek, Maadi, and New Cairo, were not experiencing this. Security had tentatively returned to those places. Today it has returned to all. Last Wednesday evening, I was returning to Menial via taxi, crossing over the bridge into the island, driving past an army tank that had not been there before and a group of men shouting and fighting in front of it. The army, of course, did nothing. Their role is not to engage in civilian disputes.

One of my roommates, N, texted me to tell me he was leaving. Why, I texted back, and he told me he'd explain when I got home. Forget the outside disturbances of Menial for a moment. Let's focus on my domestic one. The married couple I was living with, S and M (those are, most appropriately, their initials) were an interesting union, to say the least. M is a twice-divorced, 40-something born-again Christian who moved to Cairo in the fall to marry a man she had met on the internet, S, a twenty-something Egyptian Christian. An intelligent person would not have moved in with them. I am, unfortunately, not that person. Their marriage appeared fairly benign, for most of our acquaintance. M rarely left the house, and only with S, and instead smoked sheesha and watched American movies. S, I'm not sure what he did. His speciality is computers, and he freelanced occasionally and escaped as much as possible.

S, for still unknown reasons, had grown tired of N and exploded at the slightest provocation. N moved a chair from the living room into his bedroom, even asked M, but S grew enraged. N did not clean up a small mess right away. N blew up. You get the idea. Upon returning home, I also announced my imminent departure, declaring that Gunther and I had fallen deeply in love and that “we” had decided to live together. Then, I called him and told him thus. I actually explained that I was moving out that weekend and asked to crash with him, a la revolution, for a bit. Given that I offered him no alternative, he accepted.

After drawn-out conversations and a few tears on M's end, I turned in for the evening around 3, hoping to catch a bit of slumber before an day of meetings and classes. It was not to be. Within moments, shouting roiled from the living room, angry M and S voices unconcerned as to whether the entire building heard them. As the shouting escalated, N emerged from his bedroom and demanded S to calm down, that he would not let him hit M. I must have fallen asleep for a few moments, because I next remember hearing M crying about her foot being slammed in a door and S trying to calm her down. N came out, again, and confronted S. M ran for it (where, I'm not sure, since it was 4 in the morning) out the door and S, cursing, chased after her.

A war council ensued in my room, where both N and I decided to get the hell out of there as soon as possible. M was deranged, S enraged, and Menial descending into gunfire that sporadically sounded through my closed and curtained windows. M soon returned, without S, weeping, slightly drunk (she had been helping herself to some of my gin), and inconsolable. With the rising sun and ending of the curfew, I packed a small suitcase full of anything of value, locked the door to my room, and found a taxi, arriving bleary-eyed and unshowered on Gunther's doorstep.

Several strong coffees later, I headed to campus, struggled through several meetings and a teaching, bowed out of my evening class and headed back to Garden City to gather my reinforcement. He and I taxied to Menial and walked up the 5 flights of stairs, unlit and uneven, to my soon-to-be former flat. I tried the key but it didn't work. Knocking, a male voice enquired, “Who is it?” “Laura.” S opened the door, looking slightly haggard, and greeted Gunther and me cursorily. M smiled at me forlornly and then scuttled into their “bedroom” to hide behind the curtain . Their “bedroom” is actually the converted second living room into which they placed a bed, covered it in sheets, and declared it a tent. N had to walk through there every time he wished to leave his room.

For the second time in three months, I found myself throwing everything I own into suitcases and bags, sighing as I tore down the hangings from my walls and carefully wrapping my Africa statues in scarf layers. As we began the laborious process of hauling my many belongings down the dark, slippery five flights of stairs, N appeared with two friends in tow.

Outside, in the world of Menial, a megaphoned-voice announced the re-formation of the neighborhood security groups, the ones that had protected the area during the heady days of revolution. It told every able-bodied man to meet in front of the main mosque at 10 in order to form committees to patrol the area. I stopped for a moment to marvel at this. Before, if armed gangs had been running around terrorizing people, Egyptians would have complained to the police, who would have demanded some sort of bribe and marginally improved the situation. Now, people realized they could do something about it. They had a collective power, had a right to security and a violence-free Menial. And so they did something.

Gunther and I did something too, although it was less symbolic. We hauled all of my crap down the stairs, sidestepping around N and S who were engaged in a heated argument in the apartment. I sent Gunther to fetch a taxi while I waited with my belongings. Two of S's relatives appeared, nodding hello at me and heading up to fan the flames. Luckily, Gunther arrived with a taxi, we threw the stuff into the trunk, tied suitcases on the top, cradled my wooden giraffe across our laps, and left Menial thankfully.

I am currently searching for an apartment, hopefully in the Garden City/Mounira area, though I will likely end up downtown. Many of the ex pats have left, though some have returned, and there appears, at the moment, to be a dearth of vacancies in the foreign community. Gunther is generously allowing me to remain while I find suitable lodging.

What I wish to convey with this blog, along with edge-of-the-seat adventures, is the atmosphere permeating Cairo. Change is not a tidy endeavor, particularly when it involves overhauling a defunct political and security system that has been at odds with the people for the past thirty years. It will not be an easy journey, or an entirely peaceful one. Anti-reform elements are still present. Many benefited from the corruption of the old regime, and while the government is prosecuting a few figureheads, most are still stewing in their million-dollar villas, opposing change.

The will of the people prevailed, certainly, on February 11th, when Mubarek stepped down and the military stepped in. But in Egypt the military is a very separate entity with its own internal politics and allegiances. They were concerned with who would proceed Mubarek and were more than willing, some say instrumental, in supporting his resignation. They have billions of dollars tied into the country, and not just in military pursuits. It is in their financial interests that the economy recovers, that people cease protesting and disrupting society, that revolutionary voices temper and let them remain in indisputable control.

Many Egyptians, too, want this. They say, kafayia, enough, to the protesters continuing to occupy Tahrir. Change is coming, now go back to work and let it happen. But those still calling for change say the old regime is still in power, that not much has actually changed, that, if we sit back and let the High Military Council rule, we will be transferring from one regime to the next.

That is why the people began storming the walls of the State Security last week. Why they broke in and began confiscating documents that were being burned and shredded en masse and trying to free the political prisoners locked in nameless cells for political crimes. Why the military aided them in entering the smaller security buildings but prevented them, with force, from entering the main State Security apparatus in downtown Cairo. The secrets of the old regime, their contracts and assignations, agreements and corruption, illegal arrests and torture, those are too incendiary, too damaging to be released. Whether they directly implicate the military, or whether their release would merely cause unwanted instability, I do not know. Nor will any of us, probably.

What heartens me is the social mobilization occurring. The meetings in cafes at night, the small protests in front of government buildings, the continued calls for reform and change. What disheartens me is the lack of involvement by female leaders. Not a single female sits on the High Military Council, nor one on the recent Constitutional Reform Committee. 52% of the Egyptian population is female, yet not one of those voices is being heard.

In fact, they are being systematically stifled. On Tuesday, International Women's Day, a march was called for in Tahrir, ironically called the Million Women March, to demand that their voices be heard. Estimates of several hundred women gathered (I couldn't since I had to teach) in the Square to demand equal rights for women. I think this is a reasonable demand, since the entire revolution called for democracy, and democracy, in my book, does not exclude women.

Though the Egyptian men staging a counter-protest do not agree with me. They surrounded the women, told them this is “not the time” for women to demand rights (if not a revolution, then when?), to go home and nurse babies and do laundry. Some of them turned to violence, striking the women and groping them, breaking up the protest. The men who joined the women were also insulted, had their manliness impugned. When I went down to Tahrir later in the day, after class, I found only a handful of dispirited women and an anti-women's rights protest still in progress.

Divisive elements still exist in Egypt, and the thugs that were one of the hallmarks of the Mubarek regime have not disappeared. Many say they were behind the violence, if not the rhetoric, of the women debacle. Witnesses claim that government thugs burned down one of the poorer Christian neighborhoods Wednesday night when 13 people were killed with government-issued bullets (or so sources say). Both Muslim and Christian leaders were quick to denounce the violence, quick to call for unity and peace with their Egyptian brothers and sisters.

Growing pains. This is a country is transition, in flux, attempting to form a new democracy from the rubble of a corrupt regime. I saw incredible unity during those desperate days of the revolution, when women and men fought side by side for democracy, when Muslims and Christians joined hands to call for change, when rich and poor slept side by side on the cold dirt of Midan Tahrir. That moment is over. And the revolution is just beginning.