Monday, June 20, 2005

Sayyida Zaynab, Cairo, Egypt

Among my favorites spots in Cairo is Midan Sayyida Zaynab, just the other side of Mounira from where I live in Garden City. Its centerpiece is the large mosque which purports along with sites in Damascus and Medina to be the last resting place of its namesake, the daughter of Ali and Fatima and granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. While the first mosque on this site was built by the Fatimids, the building today dates from the 20th century, and is beige in color with a large green neon sign that says "God" over one of the entrances.

As the call to prayer flows into the dimming light of sunset, you notice that the Midan itself is a bustling Cairo plaza, lined with ahwas some of which actually have outdoor seating, though you still can't work in them because the tables are only big enough for your tray of tea or coffee - the setting is meant for socialization only. Along the north side of the square strings of small multi-colored lights form catenaries between poles, and while a bunch of stands and shops sell all manner of goods from plaques with Qur'anic inscriptions on them to clothing the cut of which would undoubtedly meet with the disapproval of the mosque's more devout patrons which young women in headscarves examine nonetheless with amused or mischievous looks on their faces.

While hanging out in one of the ahwas here I met a George Bush fan. I was sitting at my table having the standard conversation about being from the United States and studying medieval history, when hoping to start a political conversation I made some bland comment about being opposed to President Bush. The old sheesha-smoking man I was talking to said, "Oh, no, no, no....George Bush good, very good." Intrigued, I asked me. The man had enough trouble with English that he quickly just ran with my Arabic, but what he was clearly trying to say was, "He says and wants good things for our region." This is, while present, a minority opinion in Egypt, where most people's thinking is represented by a black T-shirt I've seen a few times featuring black-and-white pictures of George Bush and Osama bin Laden side by side under the white heading "The Twin Terrors."

It was, however, history and politics of another sort that occupied my longest visit there last Wednesday. Now is not the time to recount the full story of Sayyida Zaynab, the tale of how, after the assassination of Ali, last of the rightly guided caliphs, the leadership of Islam passed the Umayyads under Mu'awiya, of how Mu'awiya, in the eyes of traditional Islamic historiography, perverted the caliphate into a monarchy by having his tyrannical son Yazid acknowledged as heir in his own lifetime, the story of how Husayn, son of Ali, sought to oppose Yazid, of how Husayn and his small band of followers were massacred by the Umayyads at Karbala, and of how his sister Zaynab, preserved from the massacre, bore witness to it before the world, despite being a prisoner of the Umayyads who among other humiliations forced her to dress immodestly despite her lineage.

One might, however, wonder how much of this was on the mind's of the Kefaya organizers who for the first time chose this spot for a protest against the regime which President Mubarak seeks to pass on to his son Gamal, and which on Referendum Day responded to the protests by attacking the women ripping off clothes in an apparent attempt to humiliate them into silence. Undoubtedly they thought of most of it, as several hundred showed up in the early evening ready to continue their uphill struggle for democracy. Most carried signs made simply with a laser printer and white paper, featuring slogans such as "The streets are for us" or the word "kefaya" (enough) followed by something they had had enough of. There were also brooms in a reference to local folklore surrounding Sayyida Zaynab, meant to symbolize putting a curse on the regime.

A number of news outlets showed up, from reporters for print papers jotting things down on notepads to TV networks with their cameras - I was jostled by both CNN and Abu Dhabi TV while Orbit, MBC, al-Jazeera, and several others also milled around, continually angling for the most dramatic shots or dragging people aside for interviews, with the most popular being an attractive young woman holding the sign about "the streets are for us." The protest site was on the grounds of the mosque, which was ringed with barricades and shoulder-to-shoulder Central Security Forces all standing at attention wearing helmets with visors raised and often looking upon the protestors with acute disgustor hate, while most observers stood back in the middle of the street on a median that tailed off from the planted area in the center of the plaza.

After about half an hour, the protest really got going with the passionate chanting of slogans. They were led by a number of people - first a middle-aged woman in yellow with a long orange headscarf, later a clean-cut man in dapper suit and pants, later still a than unshaven young man with a ragged angry voice - who would shout a slogan that would then be repeated by the crowd all shaking their fists. I didn't understand most of them and remember fewer still, but two that stood out were the pointed "Usqut, Usqut, Husni Mubarak!" - "Fall, Fall, Husni Mubarak!" and over and over again the word "hurreya," "freedom," rolling from the protest like a series of small waves into the streets where people driving by looked on like they wondered what they'd just stumbled into. Near the end they also honored one woman dressed in black who has become the symbol of those attacked on Referendum Day, in retrospect a propaganda gift from the regime the opposition has been playing for all it's worth.

At one point attention turned to the other side of the street, where beneath elaborate banners praising Mubarak for his supposed reforms a crowd of pro-government demonstrators was shouting pro-government slogans, though admittedly with less enthusiasm than the Kefaya people. They were, however, a bit rowdier overall, and the only real drama of the evening seemed to occur when they busted past the barricade to run chanting down the street, earning the attention of a squad of reserve CSF troops who jogged in about a three-by-twelve formation somewhat-in-step after them. My associates and I decided to wander down to see what was happening, though we got suddenly distracted by somethig and didn't actually see much - in any case, I suspect that whole incident was more staged than anything else. Someone said they thought the spot they ran to was where the pro-Mubarak demonstrators got paid. I didn't see any of that, but one of my friends did ask for and receive a pro-Mubarak sign as a souvenir.

While demonstrations like this are new to Egypt, it needs to be kept in mind that they are still really small. Less than 1000 people isn't much in a city of 15-20 million. On the other hand, as they themselves would tell you, simply creating an environment in which protests happen is a huge step in itself. I think what it would take to really create change is for the Muslim Brotherhood with its greater grassroots base to get heavily involved in this sort of thing - since I've been here they've mostly held press conferences - or for some sort of spark to ignite more people into joining.


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