The wonderful kids of Doweiqa
A couple of weeks ago I covered a march in Imbaba, organised by a lagna sha3beyya (one of the defence committees created during the revolution) demonstrating for the rights of martyrs to be respected via the trial of their killers amongst other demands.
Around 30 or so protestors gathered by meat emporium El Brens. They started marching about an hour before sunset, chanting and handing out leaflets as they went. The march soon hit a crowded market street and dodged between microbuses and tuktuks. It went past women sitting on the ground selling 3rd and 4th hand mobile phones and old cassette tapes laid out before them on blankets.
If the comments I overheard were anything to by, Imbaba’s residents weren’t particularly enthusiastic about the march. One man got out of his car in order to launch into a long tirade/curse against the protestors, protests and the revolution in general. There was a quiet hiss of maledictions virtually throughout the march, with very occasional shows of support. I left the march at Agouza (it was headed to Tahrir) by which time it had grown to perhaps 70 people.
I should also relate – because it’s relevant to what I will bore you with below – that my (foreign) presence irked some of the good people of Imbaba and made one of the organisers distinctly uncomfortable, to the extent that she shouted slightly hysterically to her colleagues, “make her leave! She has to go!” I explained to her that I have Egyptian nationality and she stopped hyperventilating enough to listen to me and permitted me to stay. (And for the record this was balanced out by a lovely man who got wind of what happened and demanded that I walk with them in the heart of the march rather than skulk around ahead looking spy-ish).
Last week in Tahrir I watched “the revolutionary barber” at work. His customer was an old Upper Egyptian man getting his beard shaved and mustache trimmed. He sat rigid in a camouflage bib thing holding a cardboard sign reading “revolutionary barber” while the barber worked. A group of men stood in a semicircle watching in silence. As the barber finished a chorus of “na3eman ya 7ag” [na3eman is said after someone gets a haircut or has a bath, 7ag is a title of respect given to the elderly] rang out. The old man mumbled the standard response unsmilingly before suddenly declaring, “KOS OM EL 7AKOUMA” [fuck the government], and taking his leave.
I missed most of Saturday’s march against the Supreme Council of Aging Fools (SCAF) because I was in Doweiqa with a community made homeless when a combined force of the army and the police evicted them from the public housing (built by Suzanne Mubarak, or at least bearing her name) they were squatting. They now live in shelters constructed out of their belongings under these homes. It is mostly women and children in this community – men are either out at work or have buggered off. Many of the children are physically underdeveloped as a result of poor nutrition, but they are clean and bright and loved. A few of the women I met are an inspiration, such as Amal, an indefatigable and relentlessly cheerful grandmother, and Hind.
Hind is a young mother of three who is the group’s unofficial spokeswoman. She is confident, fluent and knows how to deal with idiots. If she had been born in a different age, or into a different class, she’d be running a company, or a country.
Amal and Hind and others took me to see a young man who owns a shop near the housing project. The shop is opposite a flat occupied by a policeman and his wife. On Friday night the wife objected to something he was doing and complained to her husband when he arrived home, drunk. The couple (the wife armed with a large stick) set about pummeling the man. His face bore testimony to the attack, one eye was entirely closed, surrounded by puffy, swollen flesh.
The women urged the man to lodge a complaint, but he said that he had already refused to do so at the police station. He seemed to be afraid. Hind castigated him, told him that they would all testify on his behalf, that they were all behind him. He remained unmoved.
Hind is a staunch advocate of the revolution and what it has achieved but as we walked away she reflected that at this very basic level nothing much has changed; the bullies are still bullying and people with money for bribes can afford to buy government flats destined for others with a greater need.
Moftases and I reached the anti-SCAF march about an hour before it finished. On the way in up the road leading to the Cathedral we met an acquaintance on the way out who warned me not to take that route or at least speak Arabic if I did. We decided to take a side street.
It was a bit like in Western films when the stranger walks into a bar and its patrons immediately lapse into a taut silence. I have never felt so many eyes watching me, and it didn’t help that some little shit shouted “how are youuu!” in English out of a window.
We walked up the street and at a crossroads encountered a huge gang of men carrying weapons of varying degrees of primitivism. We took a tentative step forward and a slightly-mad looking man instructed us to turn around. Ordinarily I might have ignored him but he was gesticulating with a huge gazelle-horn knife and one of the few life skills Croydon has equipped me with it the sense not to enter into arguments with agitated men waving around blades.
We turned around and suddenly two young men descended on us demanding ID. We asked what the problem was and he said “we’ve seen you going up and down the street”. I decided not to protest that if we were wandering around in his fucking yard it was because one of his armed neighbours just instructed us to piss off. Just as I was producing my ID a Twitter acquaintance called Dr Loai on his way to a field hospital appeared and asked if everything was OK. The Egyptian ID plus the fact of understanding Arabic seemed to reassure spycatcher and he buggered off.
I couldn’t help but comment to a bystander that spycatcher’s interpersonal skills left much to be desired to which the bystander responded with the cryptic comment, “it’s our right and your right to see your ID”. I didn’t inquire further.
Moftases had a similar run in on our way out of the demonstration with a herculean-sized prat in a sleeveless vest stationed at the footbridge leading to Demerdash metro station who saw Moftases in the company of a foreigner (me) and immediately went into the citizen cop act.
“HEY! WHERE ARE YOU FROM?” he bellowed at Moftases.
“Dokki”, Moftases replied. Prat in a vest demanded to see his ID and chests started being puffed as happens with men get into shit.
Luckily that shit meant that they forgot about me, because this is the exact spot that activist Amr Gharbeia was “arrested” by helpful civilians who accused him of being a spy and/or agitator for the 6 April movement. Amr is a lovely gentle geek who has long hair in a plait and is about as far removed from working-class Abbaseyya as you can get. Luckily he was released 5 a.m the next day by his captors, one of whom was Hassan El-Ghandour who I interviewed here.
The march ended in the predictable violence. The army stupidly blocked off protestors at the Nour Mosque, thereby avoiding the life-threatening risk of them peacefully marching to the Ministry of Defence and congregating there for a couple of hours before leaving.
While at the barricade protesters were attacked by Abbaseyya residents, some of whom hurled rocks at them from rooftops. 150 protesters were injured, some of them with serious head wounds.
I saw some of the Abbaseyya residents on TV on Sunday night and the general attitude was that the Tahrir protestors were thugs who were en route with a mission to destroy Abbaseyya, and Egypt generally. One man was complaining that protesters had completely gutted his garden nursery.
Tahrir protesters are under enormous pressure at the moment. SCAF is running a relentless, stupid and successful smear campaign against Tahrir protesters, mostly through its Facebook statements. We have had 70 statements in 6 months and many of them extol the revolution’s martyrs while simultaneously smearing the motives and background of the individuals who fought alongside these same martyrs.
SCAF’s campaign is supported by several conservative Muslim groups who , are planning a demonstration in Tahrir on Friday. Essam Abdel-Maged, the Gama3a’s spokesman said on TV that the object of the march was to prove that Tahrir Square “isn’t the property of that minority”.
What is happening is almost a carbon copy of the hysteria created in February by Mubarak’s regime, desperate for a way out. Mubarak frequently relied on manufactured threats to both keep divert attention from the universal malaise his regime created and discredit political opponents. I was watching Al Jazeera today and an expert noted that European far right extremist groups usually enjoy a resurgence at times of economic decline. Egypt currently has its own version of this, exploited by the army.
For 30 years Egypt witnessed oppression, moribund politics and a loss of hope. The country was flat-lining but that unchanging straight line meant continuity and stability for Egyptians who didn’t challenge the regime. Change is frightening, even when it is good, and the army is exploiting this for its own ends with the help of state media and some conservative Muslim groups who seem to want to outdo each other in demonstrations of loyalty.
SCAF hit on a winning ticket with the April 6 and foreign funding conspiracy theory since Mubarak’s regime had already drummed it into the general public that foreigners are either tourists or spies and the manufacture of domestic-led nefarious foreign plots against Egypt is a nice simple us versus them binary in these complicated, tumultuous times. Simply saying “the groups occupying Tahrir Square intend to eat your children alive” without the foreign hand element wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.
For us still to be hearing this shit 6 months after the revolution is devastating. Even assuming that the army doesn’t have a long-term political agenda (protecting its interests, ensuring it gets the president it wants), it has completely hijacked the transitional process through its spectacular lack of political finesse and inability to cede power to citizens.
Under SCAF’s stewardship virtually nothing has been done right since February. Nobody is asking them to transform the economy or undo 30 years of Hosny Mubarak overnight. But it is an insult that police officers accused of killing protesters have been given desk jobs rather than be suspended, that the relatives of people killed in the revolution have to camp out for justice, that the army is trying civilians in military courts, that NDP figures (including Essam Sharaf, Fayza Abol Naga and Maged George amongst many others) are still in positions of power and that state media continues to regurgitate army propaganda. It wasn’t meant to be like this.