Sunday, May 29, 2005

Liberation Square, Cairo, Egypt/Mounira, Cairo, Egypt

For over 5000 years, there has been a city within the boundaries of modern Cairo. For ancient Egypt, it was Memphis, most famous as the capital of the Old Kingdom in the far southern reaches of the modern city. In Roman times it was Babylon, today known as Misr al-Qadima, or "Ancient Cairo." When the Arabs conquered the country in the 7th century they founded Fustat just to the northeast, between Misr al-Qadima and Islamic Cairo, the latter of which the Fatimids founded in the 10th century as al-Qahira, "The Victorious," and which in English became Cairo. Cairo grew until it absorbed all the other cities and spread across the Nile until today it is the endlessly throbbing heart of the Arab world, the capital of its most populous country and in which you can wake up in the middle of the night and still crack open a door to hear car horns blaring on the street below.

Today Cairo is also the scene of historic events. For over 50 years it has been ruled by a series of dictators who came to power after the deposition of King Farouk - first the colorless Muhammad Naguib, then the nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the pro-Western Anwar Sadat and Husni Mubarak. Now events have reached a potentially critical point. Mubarak is old, his rule failing as he seeks to install as next his line his son Gamal. Opposition forces are using this moment of uncertainty to press for change in the system, chief among the the Kefaya movement (Arabic for "enough," Nasserist in orientation) and the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood (name self-explanatory). Attempting to retain control of the system, Mubarak has instituted a fake reform known as Referendum 76 which would greatly curtail the ability of the opposition to field candidates in this fall's Presidential elections. The regime, fresh off praise for this move from U.S. First Lady Laura Bush on her visit here last week, set the referendum for May 25, my first day here, while the opposition called for both boycott and a response.

The heart of modern Cairo is a large traffic circle known as Liberation Square. On the south is the large Borg-like government administrative building, the architecture of which seems Stalinist in inspiration. Next to it is a small mosque. To the left facing the square in front of it is the Arab League headquarters, well-guarded by one of Egypt's many services, which continuing around you find the Nile Hilton, one of the many five-star hotels which line the river, the large red Egyptian Museum, home to countless pharaonic artifacts, then along the north and east a string of businesses beneath apartment complexes, including two Kentucky Fried Chickens and a Hardees along with travel agencies and felafel and koshari joints. Finally, back across the street from the administrative building is American University - Cairo, home to perhaps just over a thousand sons and daughters of wealthy Egyptian families and foreign students there for study abroad purposes.

This square is always busy, and crossing on foot was a serious challenge until I discovered you could just take the tunnels connecting various points along the permeter with its centralized subway stop. The morning of my arrival, however, there was a sight one doesn't normally see, as convoys of black armored trucks lined up all around, including many of the side streets and at other points throughout the city. Inside each was a swat team of smartly groomed troops from the Egyptian Central Security Forces armed with riot gear and automatic weapons. These were the regime's key security forces, the official frontspiece of their plan to imtimidate the opposition's planned protests for that very day.

In the end, nothing happened there - the only potential protest I saw was when a van went by really fast with someone shouting something through a megaphone which other answered in unison. But protests did occur elsewhere, in Mounira district to the south and the City of the Engineers across the river. And these the regime met with violence, bussing in hired thugs to pose as members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party who attacked the Kefaya supporters, kicking and beating them and even ripping the clothes off of and groping the women. (Josh has pictures here.) I've been told that the government chooses illiterate people to work the protests so they can't read the banners, and often lies about the purpose, suggesting, for example, that the protestors are seeking something highly unpopular in Egypt like gay rights.

By the end of the day it had passed, and the government announced the referendum had passed with 83% support. Not that the opposition is giving up. Meanwhile, life in the tourist sector went on much as before, and I talked to a bunch of people who hadn't even heard that anything happened. Most Egyptians resumed their daily routines, and Felfela, a fast food chain with a distinguishing ship logo made from its name and the slogan "the height of religion," was just as busy as always, with people in orange of white chef suits whipping up fu'uls, kebabs, or schwarmas to go, young Cairene lovers continued to gather on the Corniche el-Nil, talking softly in a world all their own, and foreigners continues to bus around to all the sites. I personally went to the Egyptian Museum, where one finds that ancient Egyptian preservation techniques were so effective that the 4500-year-old internal organs of pharaoh Khufu's mother can still be displayed in an open canopic jar, albeit in a much-decayed state, and that all we know of ancient Egyptian games survives for some weird reason from the archaic pre-dynastic period, including one played on a board three squares by ten with two sets of perhaps 9 pieces each moved by ivory sticks to an unknown object by unknown rules.

This is the core of Cairo, a magnet for tourists from around the world, the poltical heart of the largest Arab country if not the whole Arab world, and the sophisticated epicenter of modern Arab culture. And at the end of every day, you never know what you'll find - on the day of protests I found myself having tea at about 10 p.m. in a shop somewhere within Mounira district, near the street which had earier been the site of some clashes. Now all was quiet, and the official Egyptian TV news omitted mention of anything out of the ordinary. But when the referendum story came on the guy in the shop looked at the TV like, "I can't believe this." And soon after my tea was done, I left to return to my own world.

UPDATE: The above should read an amendment to Article 76, not "Referendum 76." Also, upon closer inspection, the CSF trucks are a very dark green. My mistakes.


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