Revolutionary Roadblocks





A friend and I were sitting on a bench outside the citadel in Alexandria, watching the tourists browse overpriced Nefertiti heads. It was an exceptionally hot day. A man stopped to offer us a pamphlet on Islam. A group of young teenagers accosted us for a picture. I overheard a conversation between a tour guide and his English-speaking customers:

“So do you do this everyday?”

The tour guide scoffed. “Not since that so-called revolution, no.”

It’s the same sort of reaction from the merchants in Khan al-Khalili, Cairo’s main market for useless trinkets. “American?” they ask me. “This is good, very good! Not lot of Americans now. Welcome! Special price!”

I can’t even imagine the pride of the Egyptians. I watch the revolution songs on Youtube and I look at the Facebook pages calling for a Nobel Prize for the Egyptian youth and I listen to my friends’ stories of staying up all night to police their neighborhoods, and the level of hope is dizzying. What must it be like to fight tooth and nail to topple a government and now, fight tooth and nail to build one from the ground up? The possibilities are overwhelming.

And overwhelmingly heavy. It all weighs very heavily. I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, anxious that it won’t all work out, and I’m struck by how closely fear runs into hope. And I wonder how anyone here sleeps through the night.

Because what the Egyptian people fought for is worthy and important and it means more than anything I’ve ever come across; it likely means more than anything else we’ll see in our entire lives. And if it ends up meaning nothing at all, what does that say?

The coffee here is served black and grainy, with an extra infusion of ginger. It’s utterly disgusting and I absolutely love it, because it’s the closest thing I can imagine to the taste of Cairo, which is a city of equal parts stubbornness and cynicism and which is full of too many people who’ve been trying for far too long. And now there’s a choice: either the entire world is changing on them, or it never will. And they don’t have the slightest clue which way they’re going, or which way they want things to go–but by golly they’re going to get there.

My favorite thing about Cairo is the streets. Aside from the amusement of seeing a man carry two children and a desk chair on a motorcycle, all of the roads here are bordered on both sides by concrete walls. And these concrete walls are the Facebook page of Egypt.

There’s a mural near where I live: the silhouette of a man, broken chains hanging from each of his outstretched arms, standing before a faceless crowd. Every evening, my bus stops near the phrase “America, stop killing Muslims,” and we drive past “White House made in Egypt” every morning on the way to school. There are anarcho-masculine paintings from defiant gangs of Ultras. Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik stare at me from their torn and faded election posters. The artwork in Tahrir rotates constantly, one colorful portrait of World Peace taking over another.

And everywhere you go, without fail, you find stencils of the faces of revolution martyrs.

Student strikes shut down my university for nearly two weeks at the beginning of the year. We could feel the tension building up for about a week–signs were put up around campus detailing the percentage rise in tuition over the past five years, the university president’s salary, and the university’s rankings in the region. Student organizers gave speeches in the parking lots. Meetings with the administration ended badly.

And so when my bus pulled up to campus one Sunday morning, we found around 200 cars between us and the gate. The gates were locked; protesters weren’t letting anyone through. People stood in the sun for hours, not knowing whether they should leave or keep trying to get to class, and there weren’t enough taxis in the area to get everyone back home. The university refused to call off classes, insisting that education wouldn’t be interrupted for a bunch of hooligans.

Next day, same story, except the protesters provided water and arranged buses back home for those students defiant enough to try coming again. The day after that, the university administration gave up its posturing and told students and faculty to not even try coming. But they planned to resume classes the next morning; they removed the gates so that the students wouldn’t be able to chain them, and upped their security.

That night, at 3 am, the student strikers arrived on campus with brand new gates. They were installed by morning. Tuition was capped for the next five years.

I am amazed that Mubarak even lasted as long as he did.

I attended a panel last week featuring a liberal, a Salafi, and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood on a stage together to talk about a constitution that nobody seems to like. A constitution that nobody seems to like and which must be completed in less than a month.

A man stood up during the meeting. “We should be committing the dreams of the Egyptian people to paper. Do you not know our dreams? Are we not telling it right? Because this is not it.” Another man added, “I don’t know what else to do; Tahrir Square is closed to us.”

The representative of the Muslim Brotherhood tried to reassure them. “We shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel here. There are people who have done this before us. We just need to get something down and work from there.”

But of course, that’s not entirely true. Egypt is exceptional, and its constitution deserves to be and will be exceptional. Egypt is the first nation in history to replace its dictator with a Sunni Islamist Democratic constitution. Never before have those three words been uttered in sequence to refer to a real and existing regime.

But this all assumes that the constitution is Sunni and Islamist and Democratic, and that it will be approved when it goes to referendum in December. The liberals are particularly concerned about two articles: one that places the independence of the judiciary into question, and another that is widely read as placing women’s rights in danger. The Salafists decry an article stating that law must be derived from principles of shari’a law, demanding that the language be made stronger. And the Muslim Brotherhood is just trying to hold the committee together, prevent another revolution, and secure the IMF loan.

In class once, the Egyptians in the room started to talk about all of the different parties and elements currently active in the system. They spoke with disdain about the cleric who sold his soul to be the face of a secular party (“Even the secularists need a religious figurehead–they have to show they’re still good Muslims,” they explained. “And he becomes the party’s number two overnight.”) before moving on to talking about a particular offshoot party of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Our professor knew most of the members–had even voted for the party in spite of her disagreements with it because, she explained to us, the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t need her vote, and she wanted to encourage more parties to develop in the space between liberalism and Islamism.

But as she was explaining the party’s beliefs to the class, one girl got very confused. “But that’s not what they portray to the public,” she claimed. “Are they really so extreme that they don’t want any shari’a law at all?”

“Indeed,” my professor answered. “They are very extreme in that respect.”

That professor is also on an advisory committee for the Constitutional Committee. It quickly became apparent that a group of one hundred politicized people with absolutely no experience in law were having a hard time writing something on which to base the future of a nation, so they invited in ten experts to give recommendations.

Of course, these recommendations are completely ignored. She came into class very angry the other day. Egypt’s preeminent scholar of constitutional law had come in to address the committee, and she’d overheard one of the committee members whisper to his neighbor, “Who is this guy?” His neighbor identified the man correctly–before adding that he’d met him back when he was studying agriculture at Cairo University.

Needless to say, our professor was quite incensed. “He’d never heard of the most qualified constitutional scholar in all of Egypt,” she cried. “We political scientists are unemployed! This guy went to agriculture school, and Mr. Morsi, with all due respect, is an engineer!”

She paused. “You know what the problem is? We have a democracy without democrats.”

My friends and I were waiting on a group of people in Tahrir Square on a Friday morning. The Salafists had planned a large protest that afternoon–about ten thousand people showed up–and they were still setting up the scaffolding throughout the square. Signs and banners were hoisted high: “The Qur’an is my constitution.” Families were beginning to gather near the stage to listen to the religious songs being blasted over the speakers, occasionally interrupted by an overenthusiastic speech, and by the time we left a small cadre of fifty men were parading in circles with Egyptian and black Islamist flags held high.

At least three taxis stopped, assuming that the group of foreigners did not mean to be in Tahrir at this time, and asked us if we needed a ride. One driver pulled up and rolled down his window, “Which way to Egypt?”

“What do you mean?” we asked.

“Which way to Egypt?” he repeated. “Because this is Afghanistan.”

There’s a saying here since the revolution that “every Egyptian is a politician.” People who haven’t cared about politics for fifty years now watch the news every evening and yell at the TV screen. When Obama was reelected, everyone from waiters to taxi drivers to crazy aunts would offer their congratulations.

An Egyptian classmate was messaging me the night before the election. “You have no idea how lucky you are,” he said, “knowing that whoever you vote for things will be more or less the same.” He went on. “When I was voting, I voted for Ahmed Shafik (yes, Mubarak’s vice president) and took the next flight to Italy in case the Muslim Brotherhood won.”

“But they did,” I said. “And you’re back.”

“Yeah. I guess I am.”

When I’m caught in traffic (which is daily), I like to watch the street sweepers work their way into and out of traffic. Theirs is an exercise in futility if I’ve ever seen one, fighting to push back against the desert. The wind will blow all night, and come morning, the sands of the Sahara will threaten to take the city back again.

But there they are, every morning, pushing the last two inches of dust against an unforgiving curb, hoping to avoid a collision with a motorcyclist.

And I can’t help but admire them.