Eyewitness Cairo: "This should not be our fight alone"

Mural on Mohammed Mahmoud Street of Khaled Said, a young man who died in 2010 after being arrested by police in Alexandria. Photo: Scott Kimball.
Mural on Mohammed Mahmoud Street. Photo: Scott Kimball.
Grafitti on Ramsis street, down the road from Tahrir Square. Foto: Scott Kimball.
By Sarah Lazare
Mar 5, 2013

As the U.S. pledges $250 million more in aid to Mohamad Morsi’s military-run Egyptian government, journalist and anti-war/anti-militarist organizer Sarah Lazare returns to Tahrir Square to learn about the revolution still underway, witness the challenges and obstacles organizers face, and have conversations about building international solidarity at a difficult moment.

The first time my partner Scott and I went to Tahrir Square, Cairo based hip-hop artist Ahmed Nagy was simply showing us around before we actually knew what was happening. It was midday on a weekday and we walked right past the blocked-off sidewalks and streets at the square’s periphery, and suddenly we were there: in the iconic heart of Egypt’s revolution and the global uprisings it stirred.

Yet one glance told us the place where we were standing was not the same at this moment. We had been warned. Organizers we had met and interviewed, as well as people we met on the street, said “Don’t go there. It is not safe now.”

Scott and I took in an area that was sparse and factionalized, with territories clearly staked out. A cluster of white tents filled the center, maybe 15 in total. Groups of people congregated at the edges, cordoned off from each other. One gathering of about 40 men watched us as we walked around the tents. We had spent all day navigating the crowded and lively streets of Cairo, and it was a shock to see so much open space in this city’s pulsating center.

We had come to Egypt knowing that people here face great challenges, and building solidarity has been on our minds throughout our journey here. Standing in this space we realized solidarity is no straight arrow; there are deep fissures and wounds here, fault lines we struggle to understand.

Ahmed casually but briskly walked us around the perimeter, a faint smile always on his face. Scott and I barely knew him, yet his warmth and protectiveness was a strong comfort in this setting. I wanted to ask him many questions about his life and involvement in the revolution, but this didn’t seem like the time.

Scott and I have heard many takes on who exactly occupies that space. Two of the men who work at the hostel where we are staying, just meters away from the square, insist that the Muslim Brotherhood pays thieves and drug dealers to set up camp there and terrorize anyone who enters the area. This not only delegitimizes anti-government protesters, but also delegitimizes the police who do not intervene. This is part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s plan to replace Egypt’s police force with their own, they say. Everyone we talked to corroborates that some people stay in the square because they are poor and get paid.

Gang sexual assaults in Tahrir Square ripple through the media. A recent report  by Jihan Hafiz of the Real News Network highlights the belief among activists that many of these assaults are state-sponsored, a pattern that continues from the Mubarak regime and Army rule. Operation Anti-Sexual Assault organizes defense against sexual assaults in Tahrir Square and the broader community, offering an emergency hotline for people to call. When I asked Ahmed about this issue, he expressed disappointment that this is what I knew of the square. “That is all anyone hears of our country.”

Shimaa Helmy, a young independent activist and writer from Cairo who was involved in the revolution from the beginning, explained that veterans from Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel have also staked out a site at the square. This group of Mubarak loyalists has set up camp in the square behind giant banners that ring out their cause. Yet, she also has a friend—who opposes the Mubarak Regime and the Muslim Brotherhood—who still camps there. He was recently arrested when police where clearing up the area for John Kerry's visit, and he is still in jail under investigation

Ahmed then brought took us to the center of the tents, and we walked through an opening to the museum of the Egyptian revolution, set up in an open space in the tent clusters. We received smiles and welcomes from a man and a woman sitting at the opening, a greeting that calmed my whole body. We walked in and beheld walls filled with hundreds of political cartoons, illustrations, and flyers that I struggled to translate. Mubarrak sodomizing the people. The Muslim Brotherhood misrepresenting Islam to the world. The revolution continues. Dreams and frustrations quilted together in the center of this embattled zone.

The Political Landscape

Sitting at an outdoor café in bustling downtown Cairo, just blocks away from Tahrir Square, Shimaa says that Tahrir as a place is no longer the center of organizing and should not be treated as such.

“We should be going to the people. We need to bring the real spirit of Tahrir to the country,” she explains. Shimaa insists that if revolutionaries did more outward organizing and political education, they could rebuild the masses needed to consolidate the revolution over the long term. She joked about the excessive focus on the square itself, insisting it is only one square out of hundreds all over the country. "It is not necessarily a representation to the entire spectrum of the political scene in Egypt yet gets so much media attention," she says.

Yet she describes a political landscape that is fraught with challenges, enough to make her keep a bit more distance these days. Some revolutionaries are now unifying with Mubarak regime remnants against the Muslim Brotherhood, she explains. “Why did we have the revolution in the first place?” she asks. Meanwhile, the army still sits in the seat of power in Egyptian politics, a fact that she feels many activists overlook.

“The military maintains privileges. They function autonomously, they don’t pay taxes. They can still try people in military courts.”

As we spoke, a 17-year-old who uses the black bloc tactic in protests happened by the table. Shimaa got up and greeted him, speaking rapidly. Returning, she explained she had told him, “Please don’t get yourself killed. I don’t want to lose another person.” Their mutual friend was killed in December 2012, and now this young man – who has been active since the beginning of the revolution – fights police on the front lines of the clashes, “mostly for revenge,” she explains. “There are so many like him.”

As I watched him walk away into the blur of cafes and shops, I was overcome by the price paid in human lives, young lives, and the traumas that compound. I thought of all of the martyrs who fell who looked like him, and some who were even younger. The fierce determination it takes to stay with the revolution in the face of its horrific prices, to wade through feelings of hopelessness and despair and hold onto that hope for a better future. Shimaa’s words took on a new weight, a new substance. I realize I do not fully understand the risks taken here.

“All the traumas and experiences you have to be with and fight at the same time,” started Shimaa. “I can’t keep getting to know people and losing them.”

Tarek Mamdouh, a Cairo-based engineer and organizer with the group No More Military Trials For Civilians, insists that the Army has always run the show and still does to this day.

“In my opinion, the military council is the same as the Mubarak regime,” he claims. Tarek explains that after the military council took charge in Egypt, the military trial against civilians became their most effective tool of social control.

During SCAF rule in post-revolutionary Egypt, almost 12,000 civilians were tried in military court, with a 93% conviction rate. This practice has been extended and even codified in the constitution under Morsi. No More Military Trials dispatches volunteer lawyers to observe these trials and help when they can, as well as raise awareness about the issue, but nonetheless many are forced to languish for years in jail.

Struggle For Hope

In a smoke-blanketed, brightly lit bar in Cairo’s downtown, anarchist organizer Mohammed Hassan Aazad, who works in a hotel in Cairo, explains that he, like many other poor youth from Cairo, was tortured by police and had friends die during the uprisings. He says he does not enjoy the privilege of a connection to or safety net from the middle class to help him during these ordeals. With an energetic smile he shows us his scars casually and talks about how, especially for the poor, it is difficult to hold much hope for the future. Parliamentary reforms, he says, are merely cosmetic, and that even if the middle class gets their reforms they will not transform the deep wealth inequalities here.

He later explains that he used to be on the front lines of the clashes. But no longer. He cannot see the value in it. There are people addicted to clashes now, he says. They are motivated by anger and hopelessness, not ideas or political visions. Mohammed grimly smiles as he quotes Amal Donqol: “For after every Caesar that dies/Is born another Caesar/And behind every rebel that dies/Is pointless sadness and wasted tears.

I am struggling to understand the revolution. Graffiti transforms walls, bridges, and statues into canvases where visions for the future are written and sometimes shouted over each other. The revolution Continues. The Muslim Brotherhood. Images of martyrs line the walls, in some cases framed by blood red handprints. On Mohammed Mahmoud street, branching off to Tahrir Square, murals of martyrs blanket the wall and Khaled Said’s tortured face looks out at this street where some of the revolution’s most violent clashes have claimed many lives, within view of the entrance to the Interior Ministry.

In the downtown Abdeen Square on a Saturday night, a revolutionary music festival established after the fall of Mubarak by anti-government protesters shuts down the streets as youth dance to pop music blaring from speakers. Graffiti art and giant puppets fill one corner, and shirts pronouncing A.C.A.B can be seen everywhere (All Cops Are Bastards). The atmosphere is festive, growing more crowded by the hour. As the music pounds, hands shoot up rhythmically in the air, people are moving, and I feel my chest expand with relief. We must not paint Egypt as a tragedy alone. There is joyous resistance here too; it grows in the same streets where blood has been spilled. People find a way to carry forward, to live, to celebrate.

Many insist the revolution has cracked open political discourse in the country. People are speaking openly about their visions for the future and their feelings about political leaders. There is less fear, and ideological debates have room to breathe.

“After 60 years of no political infrastructure, we are finally having political debates,” explains Shimaa. “Some people deny it, but I think we talk more openly now, we are not as afraid to criticize leaders.”

Everyone we speak to has something to say about Egyptian politics. Shop owners, workers, people on the street. “I am with the young protesters,” declared the taxi driver who picked us up at the airport and graciously agreed to let me practice my Arabic with him. “The revolution must continue.”

Elections loom just around the corner, and many activists and opposition leaders are calling for a boycott of a process that they say will reflect Muslim Brotherhood control of the political process. This morning headlines blare that the Army has intervened in Port Said, where strikes, civil disobedience, and clashes have demobilized this port city of 750 thousand.

Meanwhile in Cairo, John Kerry levied a promise of $250 million in aid to strong-arm President Morsi into negotiations with the IMF, which is calling for decreased electrical subsidies on a country whose serves are already gutted by U.S.-influenced open door policies under Sadat and Mubarak. Another billion dollars is promised when the IMF agreement is signed, although that pool is not pre-approved by U.S. congress. Many of the revolutionaries we talk to see John Kerry's visit as a warm embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"America supported Mubarak then and the Muslim Brotherhood now," says Mohammed with a chuckle. "Nothing has changed."

International Solidarity

Scott and I came to Cairo with questions about how people in the United States can stand in solidarity with the revolution. Egypt is a top recipient of U.S. aid—with the Egyptian military still receiving $1.3 billion a year—and a major player in U.S. and Israeli grabs for geopolitical power and military dominance in the region. U.S. empire propped up Mubarak’s rule for 30 years and now seeks to control what comes after. Given this, we wanted to know what organizers in the United States are positioned to support those inside Egypt fighting for a real revolution.

So far we have received no simple answers. Everyone we talk to says Egyptians themselves are trying to find their way, stay unified, and maintain the revolutionary spirit. They insist that the U.S. government is culpable in the oppression of the Egyptian people, and that solidarity is needed, but clear paths do not easily emerge at this moment.

“The problem in Egypt is that we are not just fighting corruption of our government,” says Shimaa. “We are fighting the corruption and manipulation of other governments involved in our country. That should not be our fight alone.” She insists that it is vital for U.S. social movements to establish more connections with Egyptian ones—build lines of communication and relationships—and build an internationalist perspective. “People in the United States need to understand where their money is going. They need to know about the money that comes to Egypt.”

Shimaa, who spent several months at Occupy Wall Street, discussed movements to halt U.S. mass exporting of tear gas to governments around the world that use these weapons to quell dissent and intimidate their people, including Egypt, and the United States for that matter.  She highlighted an November, 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest outside of the Manhattan headquarters of Combined Systems Inc., a tear gas manufacturer that exports this weapon to Egyptian Security Forces. Tarek argues that U.S. awareness of military trials is key. “Go back and tell people about this problem,” he said. “Let them know where their money goes.”

Yesterday we walked to meet Tarek at a meeting for No More Military Trials around the corner from Tahrir Square. We had been to the square a few times since the initial visit with Ahmed, and in each instance, encountered the same tense standoff, the same air of hostility. Yet this time, when we walked past, we saw giant flames leaping out of two overturned police vehicles, each surrounded by small crowds. Later we got word there had been a police incursion into Tahrir Square, and it was their vehicles that were burning.

We turned the corner to the meeting, and a black bloc of fifty was marching to the square. Many in this procession were children who could not have been more than 11 or 12 years old. Some were carrying sticks and stopping traffic as they moved through the streets.

Scott and I spoke of the young person who uses the black bloc tactic who we met with Shimaa previously. Were we just going to stand by while they march into bloody battle with the police? What is the meaning of solidarity? But what could we do to help? We don’t even know how the streets operate here. We are from the United States, possibly mistrusted. The futility of our being here was an avalanche, it buried us and everything went cold. We decided to go stand at the periphery of the protest in vain hopes we could help these people in some way, not fully convinced there was anything we could do.

In an instant, we saw how quickly the streets here can explode with throngs of people, how Tahrir Square and the surrounding area can still have a magnetic pull as a rallying point. The march from Tharir fed into another, and suddenly the crowd was triple in size. We heard the banging of likely U.S.-made tear gas canisters firing into the crowd, then scores running through the streets past us. A police vehicle barreled after them, and when the chaos died down, we learned two people had been run over and seriously injured, possibly fatally, and another two had been hit less seriously. Crowds surrounded the flashing ambulance as the crowds were carried away and protesters dispersed.

Later that night we went to a café with Tarek to talk about the earlier events and revisit the question of international solidarity. I was too disoriented to feel much, I gripped my tea and tried to take slow sips.

“My advice to you,” he said, “is to watch very closely while you are here. Listen patiently. Just try to learn.”

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Sarah Lazare lives in Portland, Maine where she is an assistant news producer for Common Dreams. Sarah is an independent journalist and organizer in U.S. anti-war and anti-militarist movements, as a member of War Times and The Civilian-Soldier Alliance, an organization that supports veteran and G.I. movements against U.S.-led wars. Sarah has organized around issues of Palestine solidarity, economic justice, and migrant rights, and she is co-editor of the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

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