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A People’s Protest? The View From a Cairo Coffeehouse

The Common Language Project is a nonprofit international journalism organization based at the University of Washington. Nathaniel Greenberg is a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington studying the relationship between art and political change in twentieth century Egypt and Argentina. He is a CLP contributor and currently based in Cairo. He sent his view on the events in Cairo on Tuesday,January 25th.

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From the Seattle Times, January 28th, 2011.

The people of Khamarat Street in downtown Cairo spent most of the day inside on Tuesday. By 8 a.m. their street, which connects to Lazoghly Square, where the Ministries of Justice and the Interior are located, had been closed. Ahmad and Abdel-Gowab, who run the coffeehouse on the corner, were busy dragging chairs and tables inside after a police officer waving a walkie-talkie told them to clear the sidewalk. Samer, a local bowaab, or doorman, who usually enjoys his morning cigarette at the coffeehouse, rose and leaned against the wall.

It was an unusually quiet morning, he noted, thanks to a row of shielded police officers blocking all traffic at the end of the street. The people would rush the police, Samer predicted, make their way to one of the Ministries at the end of the block and defiantly wave their fists.

The chant that had been circulating for the last few days was a simple and decisive “Laa!” (“No!”)

Samer repeated it to himself a few times — “laa, laa” — before going about dusting one of the cars he cleans regularly for a tenant of his building.

A few disparate recitations of “Laa!” could be heard throughout the day, but in the end Samer was wrong. Tuesday’s giant demonstrations, nicknamed the “Day of Anger,” did not come to Khamarat Street. Several thousands of protesters, riding a regional upsurge in popular resistance that has swept across North Africa and the Middle East in the wake of the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia, targeted Tahrir Square and a few other concentrated areas around Cairo. But as far as most people in this working-class neighborhood of cobblers, metal workers, cell phone peddlers and waiters were concerned, the demonstrations may well have never happened at all.

The daily call to prayer rang out; a few stores opened. Abdel-Gowab fired up the coals for the shishas (water pipes). In a city 12 million, or 18 million — depending on the time of day and who’s counting — a few thousand people barely make a sound, even a few blocks away.

The headline in Al-Ahram — the largest national newspaper here, often used as a government mouthpiece — did capture people’s attention, however. The Minister of the Interior, Habib al-Adly, was on the front page announcing that Egypt and the Ministry of Justice had nabbed the culprits behind the Alexandria bombing of a Christian church earlier this month. And in a country where security is a top concern, the successful investigation was big news.

I’m known in this neighborhood as the “Russian,” owing perhaps to one half of my familial heritage and apparently because I “look Russian.” I explain that I’m American, but a favorite Egyptian anecdote about America is that everyone is originally connected to somewhere else.

At the coffeehouse I frequent in the evenings, I typically circulate between two groups of friends. One group, led by the overweight Ahmed (not Ahmed the waiter in this case) is older and less conservative. The second group, led by Mohammed, a weightlifter, consists mainly of 20-somethings with little to no employment and the equivalent of a high school education.

Because of my Russian appearance, Mohammed’s group is eager to know about the recent bombing in Moscow. I know nothing about it, but the subject compels them as it supposedly involves “Muslim terrorists” and so could provoke a violent reaction against Muslims. Cairo is profoundly less violent than most cities its size, a fact that Cairenes are proud of. “It is a city of peace, because it is a city of Islam,” my friend Mohammed once told me.

Not surprisingly, Egyptians were disturbed by the violence that occurred Tuesday night, but the government played up the death of a police officer and emphasized the success of its efforts to keep the demonstrators “safe.”

A lot of people will buy it because that is the only information they have. But a lot of people will also buy it because they want to. The people of Egypt are proud of their security.

At the coffeehouse on Tuesday night, the regular cliques gathered for dominoes and shisha (water pipes). The ominous row of officers at the end of the block remained, and reports of the protest from friends who had strolled over to Tahrir Square trickled into the discussion. I sipped my chunky Turkish coffee and settled in for some face-to-face time with Mohammed, who was eager to talk about the protests.

I asked Mohammed if he had gone to the demonstrations. He replied no and said no one in his crew went either. “Not even the Muslim Brotherhood participated,” he said. When I asked why, Mohammed’s answer surprised me a little. Contrary to most Western media sources that reported the Muslim Brotherhood — a popular but heavily repressed political party here — would not participate for fear of retaliation, Mohammed explained that the real reason had more to do with history.

Police Day recognizes the 1952 British siege of an Egyptian police barracks in Ismailiyya on the Canal Zone, the origin of the Brotherhood. The siege set off the rioting and massive conflagrations in Cairo that eventually ended Egypt’s British-backed monarchy and ushered in President Abdel Nasser to power. The people of Ismailiyya died alongside the police and the Brotherhood continues to recognize the holiday as important to the identity of their group. In fact, it is a meaningful holiday for most Egyptians, including Mohammed and his crew.

Police brutality is an issue, but this crew views the topic with ambivalence. It isn’t happening by the hand of some foreign occupying force, they said. The police are Egyptians, the Egyptians are the police.

That is current President Hosni Mubarak’s bizarre legacy. The military, the police; the “security apparatus” runs the country — from textile factories, to beverage and cheese companies, transportation, infrastructure and banking. Police Day, as militaristic as it may sound to Americans, is almost something tantamount to Labor Day in the United States. Holding the protests on this day wasn’t necessarily a statement against the police; it was simply the first holiday on the calendar after the Jasmine Revolution.

The formal absence of the Brotherhood from the demonstrations on Police Day was significant. The Brotherhood was the first modern Islamist group in the world and maintains major constituencies that stretch from Morocco to Indonesia. In Egypt they have become a mainstream political party, but remain the most feared opposition group in the country. In 2005, the first real election in Egyptian history, the Brotherhood won 19 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly. That percentage fell to just 2 percent this last December in what were roundly considered to be deeply flawed elections. Some experts predicted this would push the group underground again and compel them to pursue the kind of clandestine operations that could explode on a day like “The Day of Anger.” That didn’t happen. Instead, they chose Friday to participate.

After 2005, it became clear the Brothers could establish themselves as an inside party — history has shown most revolutions, including 1952, start from the inside. Their show of solidarity with the police, and the distancing of their movement from the online movement that has received unprecedented media attention from the West, has drawn an even sharper distinction between the hard-nosed populism of the Brotherhood and the ruling elites, whose sphere of influence encompasses the social class of the online protesters.

But the “Day of Anger” is exactly the kind of internal revolt that could spark a much bigger conflagration. And the recent announcement that the Muslim Brotherhood would be joining the protests on Friday could encourage broader involvement from Egyptian society.

This was the sentiment of Sherif, another regular at the coffeehouse on Khamarat Street. A 40-year-old with part-time work, Sherif is exasperated by government corruption. The demonstrations reflected his discontent. For him, the demonstrations are indeed an expression of popular sentiment.

My conversations with the younger generation of Khamarat Street confirmed this. Both crews viewed the online movement with skepticism, but shared the protesters’ resentment of the government. My conservative Arabic tutor, in her early twenties, expressed a similar sentiment. “They just want more money for themselves,” she said, speaking of the demonstrators. Everyone in Egypt knows a family member or friend working in the security apparatus, “so who is revolting against whom?” she said. Her sentiment and that of Sherif reflect the kind of complex questions being fleshed out in coffeehouses, workplaces and homes all around Egypt right now.

A massive and systemic co-option of the public by the regime has been going on for decades, and the people of Cairo are being confronted with a very scary possibility. If the center goes, will the security apparatus — and all the jobs that go along with it — vanish as well?

Al-Ahram’s front page on Thursday read: “4 dead, 118 citizens and 162 police officers wounded, and 100 arrested.” “The violence was the fault of the Brotherhood,” the article went on to state. As far as the web was concerned, some sites like YouTube were down last night, but Facebook was up. The men of Lazoghly wouldn’t know or care, however. When I asked how many of them were on Facebook, the response was unanimous: zero. But the tides are still turning.

Nathaniel Greenberg, special to the Common Language Project.

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