There are signs and portents in the Egyptian street for those who care to read them. As any good scholar in the 13th century could have told you, however, signs and portents just like tea leaves don’t read themselves. They need a skilled interpreter to uncover just what is hidden in the order of things.
Walking back from today’s demonstration in Midan al-Tahrir on a different route than I usually take just how deeply embedded the truth of contemporary Egyptian reality might be (or then again might not be) in the geography of the downtown area. I usually walk to and from the Midan by taking the Qasr al-Nil bridge which means that I pass near (but not exactly by) a large statue of Saad Zaghloul. Zaghloul was a prominent politician in the early 20th century. He was a leader of the movement for independence movement, was exiled by the British, and served as the first prime minister heading a popularly elected majority government. He was a leading figure in the 1919 revolution, a massive movement for independence during which the British essentially lost control of the country for a month.
Today I walked from my apartment to Midan al-Tahrir the regular way and noticed that, along with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians (and at least one of my foreign students) the army had returned tanks to both ends of the Qasr al-Nil bridge. The checkpoints for entry into the square, however, were on the eastern side of the bridge and were manned by soldiers only rather than, as had been the case in the past, by ordinary citizens. In point of fact the checking was less intrusive since it wasn’t necessary to show identity papers and the soldiers were mainly interested in checking bags.
The demonstration today was called a Friday for “purification” and for “solidarity.” By purification, organizers meant the resignation of the existing government which was appointed by Hosni Mubarak although it has undergone some changes since. By solidarity they meant an ongoing commitment to the sense of community that has powered events here. Today also marked one month since the initial demonstration of January 25 that began the entire process we are still living through.
One reason for the importance of today’s demonstration is that for the time being there are really two forces at play in the country: the army which stands, broadly speaking, for order and the leadership of the January 25 movement which, broadly speaking, stands for mass mobilization. To keep things moving forward it is, at least for now, important that when demonstrations are called lots of people do show up even not necessarily a million each time. I’m not sure how many people were in Tahrir at the height of the events of the last month. People came and went and the crowd expanded and contracted. I’m quite comfortable with the idea that between 500,000 and 2 million people participated in the socalled “million person” events. There were, it seemed to me, fewer people today than a week ago or two weeks ago. Whole areas that were packed with people, tents, and aid stations were largely empty (for example, the entire stretch between the Metro station entrance on the southern side of the Midan and the Omar Makram mosque). But there were a lot of people and the center of the square was packed so it’s clear that people are still motivated to show up and not just to buy flags, t-shirts, posters and the other paraphernalia of revolutionary commercialism which has been raising its head for the past two weeks.
One frequently overlooked aspect of the last month was clearly on display today: the Egyptian people have, at least for the time being, taken the right to assemble peaceably and remonstrate for redress of grievances for their own. As far as I know it is still technically illegal for more than 5 people to assemble without a permit. And as far as I know the government doesn’t really like the idea that it has to give up control over anything. But at least for now the government has reconciled itself to the idea of “losing” control over the downtown square for a day. To be honest even if nothing else comes of these events, this in and of itself is a significant and positive change for the people of Egypt.
For those who worried because Yusuf al-Qaradawi gave the sermon last week, all I can say is that he didn’t come back this week for a smaller crowd. One other well-known preacher also returned to Egypt this week for the first time in a decade: the television personality Amr Khalid. Unlike Qaradawi who is a classically trained Islamic scholar (although to my mind not a terrifically intellectually interesting one), Khalid is a very popular television personality. If Qaradawi is the Bishop Fulton J. Sheen of contemporary Islam, Amr Khalid is its Joel Ostrom (with all due apologies to those sensibilities are offended by my having crossed all the generational, cultural, and theological wires). Amr Khalid did preach in a square but it was in Suhag, a town in Upper Egypt.
So you can think of walking into Liberation Square as a trip from the 1919 revolution and its mass mobilization from the world of three piece suits, and the fez, and, celluloid collars, through the looking glass of the Nasserist revolution into the contemporary world).
Besides being present at Tahrir in case I was re-called to duty in alternative revolutionary service, I also had to get some xeroxing done. I waited for a bit until it was my turn in a small copying establishment. The very self-important client before me was having them photocopy the text of the old constitution as well as notes of a meeting that had evidently been held sometime in the past. While we were waiting a young man came in and asked him if he would write down a couple of necessary legal phrases on a piece of paper preliminary to some administrative action he was pursuing. The young man knew neither what to write nor particularly how to write but had been told by someone that the man in front of me was an attorney who could help him. You could see how little the attorney wanted to help. He clearly didn’t want to get involved but couldn’t quite figure out how to refuse. Finally he announced what his interlocutor wanted was really a personal issue and he had to go off and deal with the constitution which was something that concerned the country as a whole. And with that, after having spent 15 minutes explaining to all and sundry the importance of the new constitution and what the committee to reform it was doing he suddenly gathered up his papers and stormed off, leaving his unhappy petitioner without any help whatsoever.
Statue of Saad Zaghloul
As in many other quite casual interactions I’ve been in recently it’s clear both that the old ways in which an older and presumably more important man could simply refuse such a request are no longer fully operative. And it’s also clear that everybody wants to get into the act of re-writing the constitution since a really important constitutional legal scholar would not have been standing around in a hole in the wall Xerox establishment off Midan al-Tahrir waiting to get his own copying done on a Friday afternoon.
I went off to a nearby café to wait until my copying was finished and read the two papers I usually read every day. After I picked up my copying I started to walk home past the now-closed “Greek campus” of the American University in Cairo down a fairly nondescript street, Yusuf al-Guindi. As I first turned into Yusuf al-Guindi I realized I was walking past the apartment building in which the Egyptian communist attorney and labor leader Youssef Darwish had lived. His entire generation is now gone, but their children and grandchildren continue to play a public role in contemporary life and I think I recently saw his daughter quoted in the press.
Yusuf al-Guindi takes you past some remarkable European architecture of the early 20th century; big apartment blocks that look like they were transported nearly whole from Paris sometime around 1910. Finally I reached Midan Talaat Harb where the famous (but no longer terrifically fashionable) Groppi’s café is located. I haven’t been in either Groppi’s in years (there is another one, the socalled Garden Groppi, not far away which has become even more tired). Nearby is the old Café Riche where in the 1970s it was possible to catch a glimpse of the famous (but not yet Nobel laureate) Naguib Mahfouz. Café Riche isn’t even a functional restaurant anymore and certainly it’s no longer a place where the intelligentsia meet. It’s easy to wax nostalgic about these places but in simple point of fact they no longer play the old role partly because tastes have changed but also partly because the new intellectuals are a much more diverse group without a single established place or two. One may mourn the loss of the Algonquin Round Table in New York but we’re better off with a recognizably more diverse intellectual culture as well.
If it’s no longer a prime area for intellectuals, there are some political forces in the Midan. The offices of the man who challenged Husni Mubarak for the presidency in the 2005 elections, Ayman Nour, are there and while he was in prison on trumped up charges of voter fraud there was a huge banner in his defense hanging from one window. Nearby is also the headquarters of the Tagammu party, which Anwar Sadat had allowed to come into existence in the 1970s as a leftist fig leaf for what amounted to a single party regime (with all due apologies to political science colleagues for whom arguments about “regime type” are very important and who might be inclined to call it a “dominant party” regime). The Tagammu, like the Café Riche and Groppi’s, has been in slow decline for years and when it opposed participating in the January 25 demonstrations it abandoned what little credibility it might have had left after years of dancing back and forth with the regime.
Midan Talaat Harb is graced with a large statue of the founder of Bank Misr and the patron saint of Egyptian industrialization, Talaat Harb. Harb played a role not only in creating a nationalist bank but also national factories including a famous spinning and weaving plant in the Delta city of Mahallah al-Kubra as well as other industries. Despite a tendency to look on the 1920s and 1930s as a kind of golden age of private enterprise, Harb (like many industrialists of the time) was only able to make his investments profitable to the extent that he had very high levels of government protection amounting to near-monopoly conditions.
One interesting feature, if you’re interested in signs and portents, is that if Saad Zaghloul’s statue looks across the Qasr al-Nil bridge in the direction of Midan al-Tahrir, Harb is looking the other way. He’s looking away from the Midan. So if you want to see Harb as the avatar of capitalism and the market, that’s not very reassuring.
By an accident of placement Harb is looking further east. In fact he’s looking further up Qasr al-Nil street. And he’s looking more or less at another statue. The statue he’s looking at is Mustafa Kamil, the young nationalist leader who died in 1908. And Kamil, in a strange way, is something like the Facebook youth of his day; a strange and early echo in reverse of the Google executive Wa’il Ghonim. Kamil was born in 1874 so he was 26 when he founded about the newest media of the time in Cairo: a newspaper. In 1900, Al-Liwa’ (The Flag or The Standard) was not the first newspaper. Al-Ahram had already been around for a quarter of a century but it was a passionate voice against injustice. Kamil was a key figure publicizing the Dinshaway affair as an atrocity committed by the government (in this case the British Occupation) against Egyptian peasants. To make a longer story quite short, when peasants tried to prevent some British soldiers from shooting pigeons the soldiers opened fire. Villagers were killed and injured and ultimately one soldier also died (of heat stroke). Several villagers were tried for the “murder” of the dead soldier and others were jailed and flogged. While harsh it is far from clear that the response of the British or the Egyptian government in this case was particularly unusual.
Statue of Mustafa Kamil
Before his death in 1908 Kamil, among others, turned Denshaway into a rallying cry of the moral bankruptcy of the British regime. As with the web-page “We are all Khaled Said” which transformed the murder of a young Alexandrian man into an indictment of an entire political order, Denshaway undermined the legitimacy of the old order. Kamil died before the 1919 revolution but it seems quite plausible to see the events of 1919 as a result partly of the moral bankruptcy of the imperial state coupled with the economic crisis sparked by the war and the sudden belief that Egypt could, in the new international order promised by President Woodrow Wilson and the Versailles conference, become an independent and liberal democracy. And that the process would be one of more or less peaceful mass mobilization.
Whatever happens Egypt and Egyptians are looking in the 21st century, with some new tools, to try once again to accomplish long-standing goals.