Saturday, July 16, 2005

Midan al-Qala'a, Cairo, Egypt/Abdeen, Cairo, Egypt

To see some of the most famous sites in Cairo, you can walk from Garden City through Mounira to Midan Sayyida Zaynab, then follow along Abd al-Maguid and as-Saliba streets into the medieval city. This area is south of Bab Zuwayla and was not part of the original Cairo founded by the Fatimids, but it forms part of the medieval city anyway - just to the southwest is Fustat, the garrison town founded by the Arab conquerors in the 7th century next to the old Roman city of Babylon. This neighborhood, while today filled mostly with mosques and madrasas founded by random Mamluk notables, contains also the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, the city's oldest mosque still in use today. The building impresses with its scale and uniformity rather than aesthetic beauty, as it forms a perfect square with the standard fountain in the center.

Ahmad Ibn Tulun, the ruler who built this mosque, was a Turkish agent of the Abbasids who in the late 9th century established an independent rule in Egypt while retaining nominal loyalty to Baghdad. It was the centerpiece of a whole resplendent capital - when the Fatimids spoke in the sources of conquering Egypt, they are portrayed as wanting to "dwell in the ruined abodes of Ibn Tulun." One story highlighting this wealth is how Ibn Tulun's son used to receive visitors reclining on a mattress floating in a pool of mercury pulled by slave girls. Today, however, only the mosque remains, the rest having been destroyed by the Abbasids when they reasserted control in the early 10th century.

Further down as-Saliba Street, one arrives as Midan al-Qala'a, or Citadel Square, which for centuries served as the political heart of Egypt. One one side of it, on either side of Muhammad Ali Street, are two huge mosques, one built during the Mamluk period, the other during the 19th century in imitation of Mamluk architecture. The former is the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, built during the 14th century at great human cost - several hundred people were killed when one of its minarets collapsed into a crowd. The newer structure in the Mosque of ar-Rifa'i, named in honor of a 12th-century Sufi mystic whose moulid is still celebrated there annually - in fact, I wandered into it the day I visited, with dozens of worshippers gathered in the mosque performing a dhikr, in this case a musical incantation designed to bring them to a direct mystical experience of God.

The main attraction in the square, however, is the citadel itself, which sprawls atop part of the Muqattam heights as one of those structures the scale of which can only be conveyed by seeing it in person. It is immense, though the effect is ruined by its development as a significant tourist trap, filled with lots of small gift shops and minor museums reflective of the present rather than the past. First built in the 12th century by Salah ad-Din (Saladin), it served as the residence and chief fortress of both the Ayyubid and Mamluk sultans, as well as the Ottoman governors and later the Egyptian kings.

Today its most impressive structure is the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, built in the 19th century by the Albanian soldier who established Egypt's independence from the Ottoman Empireand whose marble tomb lies behind a grate to the right of the entrance. Its interior is strung with lanterns, and the outside boasts a huge clock sent as a gift from the French, but which has never actually worked. Muhammad Ali, considered by many as the founder of the modern Egyptian nation, hated the Mamluks, who had perpetuated themselves as a noble class under the Ottomans. In the citadel's lower enclosure, closed to the public, is a path leading to the gate which opens onto the square. One day Muhammad Ali invited all the Mamluks to a celebration in honor of his son; as they were leaving through this entrance, he had his soldiers shoot them all in the narrow passage. That was the end of the Mamluks, and in fact he razed all their structures in the Citadel save the Mosque of an-Nasir Muhammad, which the Ottoman conqueror Selim the Grim had used as a stable for horses, anyway.

Today most of the citadel's attractions serve to commemorate Egypt's modern governments. Muhammad Ali founded a dynasty that provided Egypt with rulers for over a century. It was they who, when the north blockaded the south during the American Civil War, benefitted from the spike in world cotton prices, and spend tons of money on various projects both useful in terms of infrastructure - such as the Suez Canal - or simply items of luxury, such as the palaces scattered around northern Egypt. Several of these kings are buried in the ar-Rifa'i mosque across the square - as is, incidentally, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, last Shah of Iran.

The citadel pays respects to Egypt's current set of rulers, as well. Past the museums dedicated to Egypt's firefighters (mostly a bunch of old fire engines) and police forces (containing articles and artifacts from high-profile cases in the 20th century) is the Egyptian Military Museum. Outside are busts of important Egyptian rulers - in addition to modern ones they went back and nabbed medieval figures such as Saladin and even a few pharaohs. There are also three stone plaques, one of which is written in Korean because, as they inform you, the museum was built with the aid of consultants from North Korea, and highlights the friendship between Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.

Inside the exhibits aren't that much to get excited about except as a study in subtle government propaganda. As you approach the modern period, past the weapons and uniforms of Egyptian soldiers from ancient Egypt onward, you start to get exhibits commemorating the rise of Egyptian nationalism. The "great man" school of history is in full evidence - only once was a popular outpouring mentioned - the rest was all various leaders standing up to foreign occupation and interference in Egyptian affairs. The 1952 revolution of the Free Officers that deposed the monarchy and ultimately brought Nasser to power was well marked with busts of all the Free Officers and a mural showing key events of the revolution outside Abdeen Palace. The trumpeting of official achievement continues through the tenures of Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Mubarak, and perhaps reaches its fever pitch with its commemoration of the 1973 war with Israel, which according to everything here Egypt won, due at least partly to the brilliance of an air force commander named Husni Mubarak.

This propaganda effort is perhaps more insidious than the exaggerated personality cults you find in places like Syria. It consists, not of a bunch of empty slogans most people recognize as just an expression of government power, but rather an official view of history in which the Egyptian government exists largely as an expression of national strength and independence, and which - when taken in context with the other museums in the citadel - appears also as the benevolent provider of public services and guarantor of the general welfare. This view is not imposed by force - it follows naturally, I think, from Egypt's historical experience of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and the socialism which the revolution saw as the antidote to exploitation by the foreign powers who were most equipped to compete in an open capitalist system.

This is a necessary context to the political protests taking place in Egypt today. That democratic discourse has strong roots in Egypt can be seen in the faux-democratic nature of the regime itself, with its competing officially licensed opposition parties, referendums, and relatively outspoken media. However, I don't think the democratic mindset that sees a government as a shifting expression of popular will with regard to policy preferences has deep roots, and I think this as much as anything is part of what the Kefaya types are trying to shift - their protests are not aimed at the regime, but rather at people whom they think should be anti-regime yet aren't.

The latest chapter in this battle took place last Thursday outside Abdeen Palace, on the side of a vast square in front of the huge white palace built in the 1870's which replaced the Citadel as the residence of Egyptian rulers, and which formally continues in that function today, though Mubarak prefers a palace out in Heliopolis. This gathering was the largest I've been to, with crowd estimates ranging from about 500 to over 1000.

Judging its size is difficult because it was often divided into a number of subgroups. When a protest takes place, there is, quite literally a sort of Cold War on the streets of Cairo. Often the protestors will trying to break through the CSF security barriers, and the security forces keep some fluidity to their ranks so they can address these challenges to their lines. Last Thursday this strategy game was taken to a new level, as groups of protestors would set up in different areas, looking for ways to stretch the security lines thin, while the security forces would strategically give here and there, trying to manage the protest without attacking anyone. The media plays a role in this, too - they are the reason the government wishes to avoid violence, as in the current geopolitical climate the Mubarak regime wishes to avoid potential stains on its image. Some protestors, meanwhile, will often provoke things - taunting and shoving CSF recruits only to shout for press attention when somebody raises a truncheon.

One reason for the size of this protest may have been thematic - I don't know the details of the advance advertising, but a lot of the signs focused on unemployment - again, government as guarantor of economic welfare - and Cairo certainly has plenty of unemployed people. Another reason may have been the return of the Kefaya movement proper under its official name of "Egyptian Movement for Change." The past few weeks have all involved splinter groups - we have Doctors for Change, Writers for Change, a Popular Front for Change, several types of Youth for Change, and bunches of other people for change, all of whom for one reason or another decided they'd just rather form their own group. At Abdeen, however, you had all the Kefaya brass, with George Ishaq himself, the Coptic founder of Kefaya, walking around with his slicked-back thin gray hair and a large yellow ribben around his neck and down his front that said "Kefaya" giving passionate interviews to the TV media, which was the largest I've ever seen. (Incidentally, I've gained a great appreciation for reporters in all this. When confronted with a literal mess of events, they have to sift through it all and tell a coherent and meaningful story to people with no background on the situation whatsoever, and it's really no easy task, especially with everyone trying to manipulate you.)

The protest itself was done in much the same way as the others, with people shouting slogans - in this case one of the slogan leaders was a guy in a wheelchair often placed front and center by the protest organizers. Among the new chants was "Where are the terrorists? They are the terrorists!" directed at the CSF and another blaming Mubarak for the death of the Egyptian ambassador to Iraq, which made serious waves in this country. The crowd was political diverse, featuring some Islamists, nationalists, and even people wearing the orange ballcaps of the Tomorrow party, the group associated with President Bush's chosen opposition leader, Ayman Nour. Some people also went and painted Kefaya graffiti on the sidewalk, about which the people in the flats above seemed quite unenthusiastic.

The protest also got more intense than others in terms of scuffling. I somehow forgot to mention this in discussing Imbaba, but several people there witnessed the protestors drag a CSF guy into their midst and began beating him - he had to be rescued by one of the officers. Often it is the younger protestors who are most aggressive with the older ones trying to restrain them and keep everything within bounds. Last Thursday this became somewhat serious toward the end - while I was looking at the sidewalk paintings a group of protestors who took me for a reporter all said "Fighting! Fighting!" and pointed me toward the other end of the event, where I saw a forest of truncheons in the air being wielded against a group of protestors - shortly after two young men with their shirts off were carried over near where I was standing while people shouting for water which, when procured, was poured over them to cool them off and assuage their bruises.

My group left shortly after that to make our way to a social gathering, but the protest turned out not to end there. After its ostensible conclusion, the protestors reformed and starting marching downtown and shouting slogans again. This of course drew the attention of the security forces, and according to people there who followed the whole thing, there was scuffling all along the march.

The effects of all this on Egyptian public opinion are difficult to determine, and of course there's not a single opinion to describe anyway. At Shubra and Zaytun I definitely felt that public opinion was mostly with the protestors, while in Sayyida Zaynab it was more a sense of bewilderment. Here at Abdeen for the first time I felt the people around were actually hostile to the protestors, and in fact one protestor told me later that people in apartments were dropping Ziploc bags filled with water on their heads as they marched. I don't know the political demographics of Cairo, nor can I understand colloquial Egyptian, but you can take that for what it's worth. Much will become apparent next week, when the Muslim Brotherhood finally enters the fray on the side of Kefaya.

UPDATE: Charles Levinson has a real expert take on the events.


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