Reflections Inspired by “The Square”

The Square
source: http://www.thesquarefilm.com

My ID card will tell you that I’m a 24-year-old Egyptian single male. It will also tell you explicitly that I’m Christian, which, by government standards, means I was born to Christian parents. I am not a political activist, nor am I a politician or a writer. In fact, that very same ID card of mine will tell you that I’m an engineer, by education if not by trade.

The fact that I’m writing this should tell you that I’m literate, and the fact that it’s in English means I’m at least bilingual. I’ve had the blessing of a privileged upbringing and – by many standards – a good education in Egypt (aka a private education). I’ve even had the pleasure of traveling around the world and living in different countries. I was in Belfast during the 18 days leading up to Hosni Mubarak leaving power in Egypt in 2011; and I was in London when the army attacked protesters in Maspero, killing Mina Daniel. I’m saying this simply to clarify that I claim no part of the great feat of being in Tahrir. I only went there (to participate in protests, etc.) a handful of times over the past three years; in fact, I’m outside Egypt once again, writing this from New York.

By writing this, I’m not trying to be self-glorifying or self-deprecating, even though I may seem to be one or the other at times. I may even seem like I’m trying to state a specific leaning or opinion; believe me, I’m not, I’m not even 100% sure I have one right now. What I’m trying to do is put the questions and thoughts I have into some coherent form, mostly for my own sanity, but maybe even to get some people thinking with me along the way.

Last night, I had the great experience of watching The Square (@TheSquareFilm), a film by Jehane Noujaim about the last two and a half years of our lives as Egyptians. Watching the most intense two and a half years of my life fast-forwarded in 90 minutes was a very tough yet very enlightening experience.

The one thought I couldn’t shake for about the first third of the movie, no matter how hard I tried, was whether we (the people who wanted Mubarak to step down) had made a mistake… Yes, I know this is a shocking thought, but hear me out. As I said, I had a privileged upbringing. Whether Mubarak stepped down or not, at the end of the day I was guaranteed a good job, a safe home, and – barring some political and social taboos – relative freedom in what I do and say in Cairo. That, however, was not true for many others who went out in Tahrir. Unlike most people out on the streets, I believed in the call for “bread, freedom, and social justice” while I had a pretty ample amount of all three. This is the thought that scares me the most, and why I was wondering (yes, was; I’ll explain) if we’d made a mistake: Were the privileged few who wholeheartedly wanted change giving false hope to the unprivileged many who needed it? Were we being idealistic, all the while unintentionally raising the hopes of masses of people for whom the call for “bread” was literal and the demand for “social justice” could mean life or death for their families?

Photo from https://www.facebook.com/TheSquareFilm
source: https://www.facebook.com/TheSquareFilm

As the story (and my and my country’s histories) progressed before me on screen, however, something began to shift. For some reason, I had (very mistakenly) thought that Egypt’s poor would want the “bread” and “social justice” more than the “freedom.” I (also very mistakenly) thought that, while the rich had the luxury to demand ideals, the poor wanted practical solutions to everyday problems. I think this misconception was due to an elitism that I’ve been confronted with quite often ever since January 2011. A bigger factor, though, is that I wasn’t in Tahrir from the start.

What I saw in The Square (and what many before me saw alive in Tahrir) was how Egypt’s poor, who had (and still have) a lot more to lose than its elite, weren’t just out on the street to cheapen the price of bread. They weren’t just there so that the police would stop harassing them to meet their daily arrest quotas. Many, victims of a stunted educational system and harsh living conditions, knew that the solutions to their day-to-day problems would only come with an established foundation Egypt has been lacking for many years. Although the unity of Christians and Muslims in Tahrir was quite heavily publicized (and that was a great moment, don’t get me wrong), what still gets to me and literally makes me burst in tears of joy as it did last night is seeing the unity of Egypt’s different classes. The image I had (quite condescendingly, I hate to admit) of one class with ideology leading another with practical needs couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

This is where I stop talking about “privileged and well-educated.” This is where I stop talking about “poor and subjected to a malfunctioning educational system.” This is where I realize these differences, although not gone yet in Egypt, although still as stark as ever, disappeared in “the square.” This isn’t an attempt at my part to be poetic, far from it. This is an admission of my failure to see that the people, all kinds of people, HAD spoken. It’s also an admission of my greater failure in thinking some people were on the streets for their daily bread and would be mollified by it. Along with many things, the past two and a half years have been pounding into my head that calling for freedom isn’t a privilege and calling for bread isn’t a need. I keep realizing over and over again that one can’t happen without the other, and I keep finding out I’m late in the game realizing that. People in Tahrir in 2011 knew that. People calling for a free and representative constitution for Egypt today know that. I also keep seeing how the past two and a half years (and however long this journey we’re all on takes) are much less selfless for so many people than my “privileged upbringing” had led me to believe.

As cliché as this will sound, we’re in this for the long haul, we’re in this together, and we’re in this for each other. Questions arise on the methods, the roads to the end game, but the end game hasn’t changed. The cry was, and still is, for bread, freedom, and social justice. I made the mistake of thinking some needed or wanted one in favor of the others, but I admit I was wrong, and I’m glad to see I’m one of very few who thought so.

Tomorrow’s Egypt…

After former Egyptian president Hosny Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011, due to mass protests that started on January 25th, Egypt was at the most united it had been in a very long time. Photos of Christians protecting Muslims during prayers in Tahrir were inspiring the world, as were photos of Muslims protecting churches from attacks during the 18-day protests. The rich and the poor knew that their fate was linked and they had to work together. Liberals and Islamists seemingly sought one democratic country where they could settle their battles in the political arena rather than in street fights. Civilians and the army were hand in hand, working towards building a democratic Egypt and returning the military to its role outside civilian and political life. That unity had come from a sense of achievement and a sense of purpose. Egypt had removed a dictator who had ruled the country for thirty years and was now on the road to becoming a full-fledged democracy.

Fast-forward to today, a few weeks after former president Mohamed Morsi’s repeated failure to run a democratic, inclusive transition led to mass demands of his ouster, Egypt stands at a critical point. Over the past couple of days, over forty churches, monasteries, and Christian-affiliated schools and businesses were attacked, many of them burned down. The motive, according to a Facebook post by one branch of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party? Because “the Pope participated in removing the country’s first elected Islamic president and… supports armed groups to wreak havoc.” The post goes on to exclaim about people asking why churches are being burned, saying that, while attacking houses of worship is a crime, “the church waging a war on Islam and Muslims is a bigger crime.” Attacks were not limited to the property of Christians, however. Numerous police stations and government buildings were attacked. One police station had its personnel stripped of their clothes and sulfuric acid spilled on their bodies before they were killed [graphic]. The violence even reached the burning of the Raba’a al-‘Adaweya Mosque in Cairo, close to the scene of a six-week-long pro-Morsi sit-in dispersed by police forces Wednesday. While investigations have not yet confirmed who the perpetrators were, eyewitness reports by priests, nuns, and laymen at the Christian buildings and numerous civilians around the various places that were attacked seem to agree that these attacks were carried out by pro-Morsi crowds.

In response to these attacks, the Muslim Brotherhood (in the form of both its leadership and members) has taken a number of stands. These range from claiming that churches are being burned by the police in coordination with the priests for political gain, to an official statement that “anger at the dispersal has gotten out of control,” basically absolving the leadership of wrongdoing and blaming the people who believed in them. It is worth pointing out that there has been strong and pointed sectarian language by Brotherhood leaders that targeted Christians. Muslim Brotherhood leaders previously claimed that churches are stocked with weapons; sometimes even live lions, that were there in preparation to attack Islamists. However, in contrast, a Brotherhood spokesman claimed Thursday on television that only 20% of the pro-Morsi sit-ins were formed of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, while the rest included Christians and Muslims who wanted the return of Morsi to power, even though they “hated the Brotherhood.” What the Brotherhood fails to mention, however, is that the one photo of a sign that read “Christians for Morsi” taken at one of the sit-ins was soon followed by the one below*, in which the Cross and the word “Christians” were magically crossed out once the media was done filming. Muslim Brotherhood leaders, while reacting to the attacks on churches, have not made comment on the aggressive sectarian language used on the stage in Raba’a, and elsewhere, against Christians and the Coptic Orthodox Pope.

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Christians for Morsi… or not

Despite their efforts to incite hatred against Egypt’s Christians, the one group the Muslim Brotherhood managed to get Egyptians to hate the most was themselves. Instead of helping the attackers, average Muslims were protecting churches. Reports of of torture, violence, death, and more atrocities at the pro-Morsi sit-ins that have been surfacing for the past few weeks have taken Egyptians by storm. A video of men and women saying they were enjoying the sit-in and its free food (with meat), one of them even going so far as to joke that she hoped Morsi would not return so they would not have to go home, left Egyptians with no doubt that the sit-in was anything but political. Statements from the stage  saying that “anyone who tells you to leave is a traitor and should be apprehended and handed to sit-in security” showed that, among the many that were there voluntarily, there were probably many others too scared to leave. Add to that weapons found by the Ministry of Interior and unknown dead bodies buried among the sit-in, and you get a very different image from that of a peaceful sit-in by people with legitimate political demands.

When Morsi came into power, it was to rule an Egypt that had very high hopes for its first elected civilian president. His disregard for the importance of that position, the importance of the country he was presiding over, and the aspirations of its people all led to millions of people demanding his removal. Morsi received an Egypt that was embracing the Muslim Brotherhood as a moderate, altruistic, viable political choice and left an Egypt united on one thing, its distrust and perhaps even outright hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood. Any love that was left between the majority of Egypt’s population and the Muslim Brotherhood was gradually lost due to the live feed of the Raba’a sit-in, only to disappear altogether after the violence of the past couple of days. It is a tragedy that so many of the people who supported Morsi died in the events of the past couple of days, and an even greater tragedy their deaths will not be mourned, any may even be celebrated, by many Egyptians. It is also a tragedy that these deaths were caused by the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who themselves were nowhere to be found while their followers were on the streets.

Tomorrow’s Egypt has the fear of violence still hanging over the cities and villages as Morsi supporters call for mass protests. Tomorrow’s Egypt, however, still resembles the one the world praised in 2011. People’s aspirations for “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice” still stand, and their hope for this country has not wavered, and hopefully never will.


*photo credit to @degner, July 26, 2013

Eyewitness report…

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These two photos were taken just minutes apart earlier this morning from our office overlooking Mostafa Mahmoud Square in Giza’s Mohandessin district. Here is my personal eyewitness report of how the morning started before we left.

As a (female) friend and I arrived into Game’et el Dowal street around 8 in the morning, we could hear gunshots and the road was blocked, and I personally saw a rock being thrown, no clue by who or on whom. We had to take a side road, then got out of the car some 500 meters away from work and ran the rest of the way with people all around (including a police officer) telling us it’s not safe. Security at our building rushed us into the elevator, and we went to the office to presumably start our day.

Minutes into starting our work, we could hear shouts out the window and the occasional gunshot. We looked out, and the scene we saw is the one you see on the right above. Up until then, it seemed like it was a small scuffle, but then the noise started getting louder and we started seeing rising smoke. We looked out the window, and were met with the scene in the picture on the left. Tires were being set on fire, people on motorcycles were flooding into the square, the road was blocked on both sides, and a crowd was starting to form outside the mosque.

This is when our security started coming up and telling us we had to leave. They said they saw people shooting at the police and that the police (who are usually traffic police in this area when there’s nothing going on) couldn’t do anything and left. They also said there were Molotov cocktails and the main road was completely blocked. We evacuated the building, in a scene reminiscent of the 1992 earthquake, and got into the cars waiting right outside the building to get us out of the area.

The above is what I personally saw between 8 and 9:30 in the morning today, August 14th, 2013. From what I hear, things got much worse in the area afterwards. From the graffiti shown in footage of the area after we left, it’s obvious the people who were barricading the mosque, blocking the square, and shooting live ammo were supporters’ of former president Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in what I believe is retaliation for the breaking up of their allegedly peaceful sit-ins earlier in the morning.

One or the Other?

Cairo crowds cheer the Army
Crowds in Cairo cheering Army copters on in run-up to removal of Morsi on July 3rd

Let me start by saying that, in an absolute choice between the Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, I would unequivocally choose the Army. My choice would be based on one simple, basic, perhaps naïve reason.

Any national army has a vested interest in its country being prosperous, or at the very least safe. This is even more true for an army of conscripts such as the Egyptian army, where at least the lower ranks are made up of everyday Egyptian men from all walks of life. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, has shown on numerous occasions that Egypt as a nation was not its top priority, if it was even on the list at all. This was done by word (former MB Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef famously said “screw Egypt” and former president Mohamed Morsi was famous for addressing “his family and tribe” rather than the people of Egypt) and deed (among a vast list of both proven and alleged deeds against Egypt, laying out the Egyptian flag on the street at the MB sit-in to be stepped on is only an example of the group’s disdain for the country).

I think it’s important to say here that this opinion applies solely to the MB and other groups with non-Egyptian agendas, not to Islamist or religious political players at large. While I do not agree with the idea of religion-based politics, I’d still welcome any Islamist party that has the Egyptian interest at heart and not a regional or international, or even group-based, agenda.

Now that my choice of Army vs. MB has been made clear, the important question to ask is. Are these really our only two choices in Egypt at this point in time? And if so, why? Where are the other players that have been in the political arena for years, at least since January 25th? Where are the liberal forces that have time and time again seemed to align best with the hopes and aspirations of Egyptians for a better future? Do we really stand at a point where it is one or the other?

Let me end by saying that I have not decided on whether or not I’ll be joining today’s protests, called for by Defense Minister Abdelfattah el-Sisi to give the Army a mandate to fight the “potential violence and terrorism” threatening Egypt. My indecision is not based on a lack of trust of the Army, as is the case for many, or a lack of desire to fight violence and terrorism, as it may be seen by some. My indecision, however, is based on a lack of desire to choose the better of two evils and trying to find a third way out. I believe, though, that at the end of the day practical and realistic concerns will take over my idealism and I’ll be joining the throngs, but I’m hoping to be more sure of the decision then than I am now.