Tahrir Squared: Egyptian RevolutionsJuxtapoz // Monday, 28 Nov 2011
Today is the day of major parliamentary elections in Egypt, the first since the ouster of staunch US ally Hosni Mubarak. These elections come on the heels of fresh violence and protester deaths in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt as the people revolt under the yoke of SCAF, the current incarnation of a military apparatus which predated and ultimately supplanted Mubarak. The following post is the story of one Egyptian man, currently in self-imposed exile, who offers his perspective on Egypt's present crisis through the lens of his own personal experience. It has been edited for clarity but not content. -VU
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(The People Want The Fall Of The Regime)
by An AmoebaDisclaimer: This is not a term paper with a bibliography nor is it intended to be used as a reference for scholarly endeavors. This is my personal context of events in Egypt that led to Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow. I have experienced most of this firsthand and the rest was related to me by family in Egypt. I have made an effort to not use any external sources as it is my intention to keep this as personal as possible.
September 11th 2001 is usually regarded as “the day the world changed”. Unfortunately, this truth is held to be self evident for all the wrong reasons. Little known fact, but “9/11,” as the catchphrase goes, was actually the day the Arab Spring was born. It was the first time young Arabs lashed out against their corrupt, cruel and inefficient governments. Mohammed Atta was the first Egyptian to articulate “America is fucking us up the ass by propping up Hosni Mubarak” in a way that didn’t involve sitting in one of Cairo’s many cafes, smoking a shisha, drinking black tea and whispering his frustrations under his breath in fear of getting picked up by the ubiquitous plainclothes police. They zap your nuts with electricity if they catch you saying that.
I was born to a mother of Turkish origin and an Egyptian father. My mother’s family was related to the extended family of King Farouk I of Egypt who was overthrown in the revolution of 1952. We were not royals ourselves, but were the “intellectual elites” as it were. After the revolution, brand new President Nasser purged most of that class as he saw them to be the root of all Egypt’s ills. In a direct appropriation of Nacht und Nebel, just about every household that had someone we were related to received a visit from a group (usually 2-3) of suited men in the middle of the night. The male(s) was/were given 10 minutes to get dressed, were taken away and never seen again. The “night visitors” they were called. I don’t have much of a family remaining on my mother’s side because of that. My father’s family... well, social climbers in the “New Egypt”. That’s about it really. I was raised by my mother solely starting from the age of 6 months after my parents’ marriage (predictably) imploded. I grew up in a middle class neighborhood in Cairo, right next to a police station. That last piece of information is significant.
Right after I was born, Anwar Sadat was assassinated, propelling his nondescript Vice President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak into the presidency. Towards the end of his life, Sadat was reviled. His was a corruption so complete and encompassing it would have made the Pharaohs blush. Generally (at least from familial experience) the unrelenting brutality was Nasser (whose secret police was aided by a number of Nazi war criminals who had escaped Europe and found haven in Egypt. Aribert Heim was not the only Nazi living there), and the boundless corruption was Sadat. Unlike his trail blazing predecessors, Mubarak did not introduce any new vices to power. Nor did he take the existing ones to any new heights. He merely carried on maintaining the status quo. Originality was never Mubarak’s strong suit. In the early years of his presidency he was regarded as The One, though. He was going to free us from corruption. He was going to end the brutalization of the Egyptian people. He was going to treat us like, dare we dream, human beings.
America through the eyes of an average Egyptian in the 1980s could be summarized as follows: Michael Jackson, Prince, Falcon Crest, Knots Landing, Night Rider, MacGyver, Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson, oh my fuck why is Michael Jackson turning white? That’s about it. America was this far away distant land where everyone had a supermodel girlfriend and drove a fast car. ?????? ??? ??????? “Amreeka balad el ahlam”, “America is the land of dreams” is how it went”. Unattainable, magical, where good people went after they died. Matter of fact, my first memory was seeing a documentary on the NASA space program on TV. That’s how I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was going to be an astronaut with NASA. Later when I reached that age, I also decided I was going to hook up with Winona Ryder. I did work for NASA during graduate school. The latter has yet to come to fruition. Funny aside, when I had to go to the Department of Homeland Security for the now-cancelled mandatory fingerprinting/photographing program in 2003, in the lobby they had a TV playing a Michael Jackson concert before launching into Toy Story. I could not make this up even if I tried to.
America became a little bit more real and tangible once the 80s faded and the 90s dawned.
In the summer of 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Then president/erstwhile CIA director George H.W. Bush decided to form a coalition to free said invaded country. A cynic might look at it as a way to punish former CIA ally Saddam Hussein for not being able to crush Iran, chemical weapons and all, while coming out of it smelling like roses, but that does not change the fact that Iraq had just invaded Kuwait and the “free world” and its leader were damned if there were going to stand aside and do nothing. Egypt at the time was in a defense pact with Iraq, and President Mubarak was given a stark choice: “You are either with us, or you are with the enemy”. If this sounds familiar, it should. We were with America and in return for our efforts, we received roughly a $20 billion debt write off.
Egypt’s armed forces, the so called “Guardians of the Republic,” were suckling at the teat of Uncle Sam’s Camp David Treaty-mandated annual military aid, in the process amassing an entire empire, the extent of its reach is still murky at best. Everything from the production of subsidized bread to bottled water to sewing machines to cars to armored personnel carriers bore the emblem “suni’a fee masane’ al kuwat al mussallaha” (made in the factories of the armed forces). Officers lived in exclusive subsidized apartments, bought subsidized cars, had free health care in the armed forces hospitals (usually the best equipped in the country), had their own exclusive social/sporting clubs (this is key in Egypt where young people really had nowhere to go, as malls are a relatively recent addition to the culture), etc. In addition, each officer had his own “service soldiers”, essentially indentured servants who drive the wife around, carry the shopping bags, drop the kids off to school, bring coffee, mop the floor, etc. Because military service is compulsory in Egypt, there was no shortage of those (un)willing slaves. My refusal to serve and subsequent defection was largely informed by this fact. The army was and always has been a state within a state. Mubarak, being the former head of the Air Force, represented the army in civilian clothing. He knew that in order to remain in power, he had to keep the army happy, and keep them happy he did. You would win a Pulitzer in journalism if you could find any record of the army’s expenses, tax records or how they spent that military aid money. Army heads kept rotating because of Mubarak’s paranoia about being overthrown in a coup (ironically how he ended up either way). Field Marshal Tantawi was the latest head of the army and the least controversial. “Mubarak’s poodle” was the flattering nickname.
It was obvious that Egypt was going to play a large role in Kuwait’s liberation, which it did. The details are fairly well documented elsewhere and for the sake of brevity, I will not cover them here. What isn’t as prominent is the profound effect that this war had on Egyptian/American relations and on the face of Egyptian culture.
The first thing I noticed about how things were changing were all the traffic jams. These weren’t the typical fistfuck traffic jams of your typical Heliopolis afternoon. Those involved the now familiar black-clad riot police lining the entire length of the street that went from Cairo International Airport to the presidential palace. Lanes were painted on the streets and snipers placed on the roofs of buildings. This became a very frequent occurrence. I went to school right next to a 5-star hotel frequented by foreign presidents and dignitaries. I remember police preventing our school bus from driving by that hotel and forcing us to get out and walk to school. It was rumored that President Bush was staying there with the absurdly large posse that usually accompanies an American president on foreign visit.
Up until 1990, if you lived in Egypt, you had two TV channels: Channel 1 and Channel 2. Cairo residents also got Channel 3. These started up at around 6 or so, if memory serves me correctly, and they end at about 2 or 3 am. Static in between. Channel 1 was the “official” channel with all Arabic programming. Channel 2 was where the foreign movies were sprinkled here and there. But something interesting happened. During the Gulf War, if you played with the dial on TV, something new showed up. It was all in English. It was 24/7. It was certainly fuzzy, but you could make out “ghosts”. It was called CNN. No one had ever heard of it before. It was like making contact with the little green men from mars. Shortly after, another channel called MTV appeared, raising all sorts of hackles. This came from America. Our youth were about to leave home and become degenerates. As much as I’d like to say this affected me personally, I had already been to Europe and knew about these things. My friends from school also talked about them. My very well-connected friends. Their parents were cabinet ministers. They had homes in London and Paris. They had chauffeurs. You longed to be accepted in their club. They lived it like they did on MTV.
Like any “third world” country, Egypt had the sort of infrastructure that would make the condemned in Hell cackle with schadenfreude. “We might be in Hell but at least our phones work,” they would probably say. Egypt thrived on colonial-era bureaucracy. All bureaucratic roads led to one place: “The Complex” in Tahrir Square. The Complex had a spiral staircase and offices full of people with typewriters. The Complex was the, I wouldn’t say “brain”, but brain stem of the government. It regulated how it pissed and shat to take my analogy a step further. The Complex was so important, it merited its own movie by Egypt’s biggest actor, Adel Imam himself. This movie is highly recommended viewing as it is one of the most savagely funny comedies made in a country that rewrote the “savage comedy” book. The Complex was a big deal.
America’s idea for repaying Egypt for its president’s servility was to “show us the light” economically. It was a very simple two step process: 1. Privatize anything and everything. Dismantle state ownership of everything and put it in the hands of individuals and 2. Repeat step one as many times as you need until prosperity floods us all. The basic premise was that big government is bad, and the free market is king. If that sounds like Reaganite bullshit economics, that’s because it is. If it sounds familiar, it should.We were to privatize, become ruthlessly capitalistic and let the free market decide.
And so the feeding frenzy began. The country was effectively sold to, not necessarily the highest bidder, but the bidder who had the closest ties to Mubarak, his wife and his two sons. Sidewalks were torn and repaved with tile bought from companies partially owned by the Mubarak sons, desert land was sold for almost nothing to developers who gave the Mubaraks kickbacks, construction projects began, foreign investment flowed in, even McDonald’s opened its first branch in Cairo in 1995. The same black-clad riot police were deployed because the city came to a halt that day. We were now America. The boom was upon us. Only that is wasn’t really upon us, it was upon a very thin sliver of the population. Our 1% as it were, although in this case it was more like the 0.1%.
I had always been fortunate enough to attend elite schools. I received a good education and rubbed elbows with, if not the cream of Egyptian society, then certainly its cream-colored ejaculate. Name a cabinet minister current or past, and chances are I know his offspring. My friend lived in the same building as Mubarak’s two sons and I visited that building (and dealt with more plainclothes police than is recommended for human consumption) quite a few times. I went to school with a member of the Mubarak family, two of Sadat’s grandchildren and one of Nasser’s grandchildren (charmingly named Gamal Abdel Nasser just like his grandfather). I wanted to murder him every time I saw him for what his grandfather did to my family. But these people were the reflection of the upper crust of Egyptian society. The people for whom the privatization boom was working. To give an idea as to the sort of affluence we are talking about, once you turned 15 you were expected to get a new BMW, or “beamer.” You were subhuman trash if you didn’t. While outlawed for the rest of us, I knew several people who carried guns in their cars. One time, a fight broke out in school. Because it was an American school, the embassy got involved. The person who started it showed up with the head of Egypt’s intelligence service. The whole thing was laid to rest. People had money and influence to burn. 15 year-olds.
It would be easy to dismiss this privatization boom or to blame it for all the ills of society, but it would be simplistic if not entirely dishonest. Good did come out of it. Major construction projects were completed. Places like Sharm El Sheikh – a major tourist destination – flourished. True, cities were build on corruption, but they were being built. The country did progress in some capacity. Tourist revenue came in. Some jobs that centered around the tourist industry were created. It was anemic, but it was real. Notice how while the Tahrir Square demonstrators railed against the fat cats, no one said “let’s burn this hotel complex built on land sold by Mubarak for nothing with materials supplied by one of his sons’ contracting companies, etc”. It never is that simple.
And while a good time was had by some, most everyone else was noticing one thing: the train had left them behind and now their lives have become literally unlivable. When you have any segment of the population high-rolling, the cost of living goes up for everyone. People saw Big Macs, but could not afford them. People went from being poor to being deprived. The best examples I could think of the desperate situation of some were a story I read in the paper about how a college professor was caught scavenging for food in the dumpster of a hotel which had just hosted a lavish wedding. I didn’t believe this could happen until later when I actually did see someone in a suit and dress shirt without a tie mulling around a dumpster near a five star hotel. Seeing is believing, and in my case, this is an image that i will never forget. And so it continued, until it came to a boiling point and arguably the beginning of the end in 2008.
One of the most constant and enduring images that have made the rounds on the Internet is our black-clad riot police savaging peaceful protesters. Many have wondered if that level of brutality was something borne out of trying to suppress the uprising against Mubarak. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Police brutality has been how every President since Nasser has stayed in power. I had mentioned earlier that I grew up next to a police station, and this provided me with first hand insight into how the police there operate. Every Thursday night (Friday/Saturday are the weekend in Egypt) I would hear people screaming from the beatings they were receiving. Men and women. This is because the officers wanted to extract confessions so that the accused could get charged and loaded onto prison trucks to get incarcerated pending “trial”. And they wanted to do it quickly because hey, there was a weekend to be had here. What does a preteen think when confronted with sounds of human beings being tortured? “I wish they would keep it down or just hurry up with it,” I would think. Thursday night was comedy night on TV and quite frankly, torture was commonplace. I should add that those prisoners were not al Qaeda. They weren’t “national security” prisoners. They were petty criminals. Pickpockets and the like, and for the most part they were innocent. I once saw a man getting whipped on the soles of his feet (that way there are no visible marks when he goes to court) through my window. The officer in charge of the interrogation looked out his window, saw me looking and nonchalantly closed it. The beatings went on. Justice being served.
Probably one of the cruelest ironies is that the police have white uniforms. White. The most comforting color a uniform can be in. It was supposed to “reflect their integrity”, it was said. Give it to our government, at least they don't lack a sense of humor.
I had a very bizarre near run-in with the police. In early 1997, Egypt was INVADED BY SATANISTS. Actually, heavy metal which was always popular there among a certain segment of middle class youth (the first record I ever bought was Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” on cassette in the late 80s), and at some point people thought “instead of listening to the stuff, how about we make our own music?” And this is where the shit hit the fan. Police in full combat gear would bust into houses in the middle (favorite tactic) of the night looking for “Satanic materials” code for “black t-shirts” and teens were arrested en masse, dragged out of their beds. The highest religious authority (the Grand Mufti) decreed that they had abandoned Islam and should be put to death. Even our President Mubarak had something to say about it, namely that we are facing a serious threat to our youth. Teens had their heads shaved, were forced to war all black and were paraded on TV as a warning to others. All were released without charge later. How how does this relate to me? As a musically-inclined teen male, I had graduated from playing classical piano which I had done since the age of four or so to playing BIG BAD RAWK on an electric guitar. I also stood out because I made the foolish decision to grow my hair down to my elbows which was unheard of in Egypt at the time. I will still claim that I was the first to do it, and as such on a good day had people yelling “faggot” at me, and on a bad day received death threats or threats of violence. Over all, I had few friends and a lot of people who wanted to set me on fire. As I mentioned earlier, I lived next to a police station. Guess what happened when “Satan mania” broke out? At that time (actually it was mid-96) I had moved to America by myself. I was visiting home for the winter holidays. At the end of my stay, my mom took me to Cairo International at about 1-2 AM so I could catch my flight back to Boston. I remember receiving a hysterical call from my mother which started off with “do you listen to a band called Slayer?” and ended with “they were looking for you. You almost got arrested for being a satanist”. I had beat the police by a few hours. I didn’t set foot in Egypt for three years after that.
But perhaps the most two most infamous cases of police excess (to use a gentle euphemism) are that of Emad El Kabir and Khaled Said, with the latter being one of the sparks of the uprising that toppled Mubarak.
Emad El Kabir was a 21 year old minibus driver who tried to break up a fight between his cousin and a police officer. The police showed up later, dragged him to a police station, sodomized him with a broomstick handle, recorded it on a cell phone and sent the video to people he knew to make sure he was seen getting raped by as many people as possible. The outrage! Those pigs must have been given stiff sentences for that they did! Actually, it was him who got a three month sentence for “resisting arrest”. The police threatened him and his family if he didn’t withdraw his complaint against his attackers. The video of the attack is widely available over the internet. It was the first time that a large number of people got to see firsthand what goes on in Egyptian police stations.
Khaled Said is the Egyptian face of the revolution – the last straw. A 28 year old who liked computers and composed music, he recorded a surreptitious video, available on the internet, of two police officers divvying up the spoils of a drug bust. He was dragged out of a cyber cafe and beaten to death by plainclothes police. Initially the police had said that he was a drug dealer who had swallowed a packet of drugs and died from that. However, postmortem pictures of the corpse posed the question: how does your face get smashed in, your teeth broken and your jaw shattered from swallowing drugs? The picture went viral, and the beginning of the end of Mubarak’s regime was finally within reach.
Another major factor in igniting the unrest that ultimately toppled the regime had to do with one of the most basic concerns a human being can have: food, specifically bread. For as long as I can remember, meat was too expensive for your average Egyptian and as time went by, it became even more so. So meat was out of many people’s diets (at least one a steady basis). With the global hike in food prices in 07/08 and the associated food riots, it was only a matter of time before Egypt caught that bug. It is estimated that 70% of Egyptians rely on subsidized bread, and at this point, bread grew expensive and there were shortages. While saying that Mubarak was eventually toppled over bread would be a gross over-simplification, the food riots were one example of people actually letting go of their fear of government for a short while and the government actually listening– and having the army increase bread production. But again, I should emphasize that the bread part of it, while significant, was only one part of it. Resentment over income inequality, corruption and oppression also played a part in those riots. Food prices were simply a manifestation of the anger felt towards the government at the time.
So if this was such a terrible government, with a sadistic police force and economic injustice to make the Pharaoh blush, how come it stayed in power? Why wasn’t Mubarak voted out? The answer to that is simple: we had no mechanism to vote him out. Basically, the system worked like this: parliament, dominated by Mubarak’s own National Democratic Party (now dissolved) fields a candidate (code for “Mubarak”). Then the people exercise their democratic franchise by voting on said candidate in a referendum. Each term is 6 years, and Mubarak “won” all of those referendums by margins as large as around 95%. In 2005, opposition to this system grew, which forced him to propose changes to the Constitution which would allow multi-candidate elections to take place. A referendum in May of 2005 approved that constitutional amendment and in September 2005, we had a new presidential election. As expected, the election itself was a farce with rigging, intimidation and a markedly low turnout. Officially, Mubarak was given close to 90% of the vote. The runner up, Ayman Nour, who Mubarak imprisoned in January of 2005, ended up with less than 10% of the vote and was promptly sent back to prison on Christmas Eve 2005. US State Department Sean McCormack praised Mubarak to the skies for opening up the democratic process and very strikingly praised our police for maintaining the order in our first “free multi-candidate” elections. Mubarak stayed on with the blessing of his benefactors and started grooming his son Gamal to succeed him, a move that was unpopular even with the army. Emboldened and feeling utterly invincible, Mubarak was responsible for one last farce, the parliamentary elections of 2010 where the NDP won roughly 80% of the seats contested with no one from the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition block, winning a single seat, a move seen as a first step to orchestrate a transition of power from the elder Mubarak to his son and senior NDP official Gamal Mubarak, as Hosni Mubarak himself never said one way or the other whether he was intending to stand again in 2011. It is no surprise that one of the main demands of the protesters in Tahrir Square, even before they demanded Mubarak’s resignation, was the dissolution of parliament. That was also one of the first things the new governing junta in Egypt did after they took power from Mubarak.
A few days after the results of our parliamentary elections, a 26 year old Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi from Sidi Bouzid had his electronic scales and his produce confiscated by a police woman who also hit him (disputed whether she or her aids hit him, but by all accounts he was beaten) and allegedly insulted his dead father (she would eventually be acquitted). He attempted to see the governor to complain. The governor would not see or listen to him despite him threatening to burn himself. At roughly 11:30 am on December 17th 2010, Mohammed Bouazzi doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. The Tunisian revolution that followed illustrated one key thing: the police can’t arrest everyone and they can’t shoot everyone. At one point if enough people mobilize, they will be heard. Shortly thereafter, our revolution was about to begin...