23 December 2011

Cairo Dispatch

Just three weeks after the events written about below, there is blood in Tahrir Square again. It fighting started last Friday, when the military attacked a sit-in outside the cabinet building. As in November, it escalated into days of clashes, with a combination of army soldiers and Interior Ministry paramilitary troops exchanging rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails with anti-junta protesters. Occasionally, usually in the dead of night, the army sweeps into the square, firing their guns and trying to clear it. The protesters return a few hours later. At least thirteen people have been killed so far. Activists had called the sit-in “Occupy Cabinet.”

For five days last month, Tahrir Square felt like a war zone, at least to someone who has never been to one. Half of the streetlights had stopped working, probably knocked out by projectiles launched by the riot police, making the side streets dark except for occasional blue flashes from an ambulance. The sound of protesters beating war drums against the sheet metal storefront shutters was pierced intermittently by the whistle . . . crash of fresh tear gas canisters. The tear gas left the thousands of protesters with burning eyes, making the square at times look like a massive, weepy funeral. Motorcycles noisily ferried wounded street fighters away from the battlefront, to the makeshift field hospital set up next to a Hardees. Lines of young men in gas masks or with scarves over their faces marched in the opposite direction, toward the front lines, holding hands and chanting as they readied themselves to reenter the fray of flying Molotov cocktails and rocks and birdshot.

If, like me, you empathize with Egypt’s revolutionaries, the atmosphere was inspiring. Young men were risking and in some cases giving their lives (more than forty died) to defend the revolution stolen from them by the ruling military junta. The fight started when a group of riot police attacked a peaceful sit-in and quickly escalated into a street battle when thousands came to protect Tahrir and fight the Central Security Forces, the black-clad, baton- and shotgun-wielding paramilitary troops of the much-hated Ministry of the Interior. For those five days of fighting, it felt again like the revolution was alive again and that the people were ready to reclaim it from the military.


I say all of this to establish my sympathy with the three American study abroad students who were arrested and subsequently deported for fighting alongside Egyptian revolutionaries earlier this month. We don’t know exactly what Luke Gates, Derrik Sweeney, and Gregory Porter were up to around Tahrir Square before they were arrested, paraded before the state television cameras, and according to Sweeney beaten by the Egyptian police.

But some of the evidence we do have, particularly from Luke Gates’s Twitter stream, suggests that they did participate in the fighting. (One tweet: its only scary cuz i feel so reckless. Another: we were throwing rocks and one guy accidentally threw his phone.) If I had a less complicated understanding of Egypt’s revolution and fewer instincts for self-preservation, I might have done the same, swept away by the excitement. They may be nothing more than naïve kids, but I respect what I assume was part of their motivation for joining the fighting: a sense of solidarity with the Egyptian revolution. (Gates wrote, back to tahrir tonight, as police set fires to everything, no doubt they will blame it on protesters, suggesting he’d come to share Egyptians’ hatred of the Interior Ministry’s dirty tricks.)

After returning home to Missouri, Sweeney told CBS: “You do get passionate about it. It’s about a passion for democracy and liberty and values that I think Americans can stand for, too.” The Egyptians’ revolution against corruption, brutality, and plutocracy is sympathetic to many Americans. Thousands across the country in their own way have, taken up the same causes at the Occupy protests. But throwing rocks is not the best way to show transnational solidarity, especially not in this year of global uprisings, when every day new connections are forged between activists around the world.


In December 1936, George Orwell left England for Spain, where he joined the socialist militias in their war against the fascists. I recently re-read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and was struck by its resonance with my experience as a non-national supporter of the Egyptian revolution. Orwell’s description of arriving in Barcelona speaks directly to anyone who stepped into the Tahrir Square occupation last winter:

Many of the normal motives of civilized life—snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.—had simply ceased to exist . . .  Of course such a state of affairs could not last. It was simply a temporary and local phase in an enormous game that is being played over the whole surface of the earth. But it lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it. However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism.

Tahrir is much changed since those first eighteen days, before Mubarak fell, but that spirit that makes hope more normal than apathy or cynicism still exists among the revolutionaries.

There are many other passages in Orwell’s book that remind me of life in Egypt. (Even his condescending observations— “Whenever it is conceivably possible, the business of today is put off until mañana”—are echoed by the Orientalist drivel one often hears from recent Anglo-American arrivals. “Of course the conference started an hour late, you know how things are here, they’re on Egyptian time.”)  But while Orwell and the non-national leftists who fought alongside him in the trenches of Catalonia were invited into the Spanish struggle against fascism, foreigners decidedly have not been invited to join Egypt’s revolution against Mubarak’s crony corporatism and the military junta’s monopoly on all forms of power. This is in part because Egypt’s uprising has been characterized by flag-waving nationalism and also because the counter-revolution has put forth a narrative that the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square are participating in a foreign plot—varyingly Israeli, American, Iranian, Palestinian or Qatari—to destabilize Egypt. It’s a fatuous argument, but a population that has been conspired against for so long is a fertile ground for conspiracy.

Even those who know that there is no foreign conspiracy aren’t ready to welcome foreign  rock throwers. About the three American students, an Egyptian friend active in the protests said, “Didn’t they know it was the most counter-productive thing for the revolution they could do?” He’s right. I have lived in Cairo for two years, work at an Egyptian newspaper that makes no secret of its pro-revolution stance, and have friends and colleagues who are genuine revolutionaries. But although I’ve been tempted, I’ve never joined in a chant against Mubarak or the junta, never carried a sign condemning Egypt’s rulers, and I’ve certainly never thrown a Molotov cocktail at Central Security Forces.


Transnational solidarity is rarely an easy path to travel. Even during the Spanish Civil War, when the lines seemed so clearly drawn—fascism and its opponents—complications arose. Indeed, the Spanish case in some respects is a good reminder of why foreigners shouldn’t be invited to fight in domestic conflicts. The Soviet Union co-opted the Spanish struggle and turned it into a proxy war against Trotskyism, run by intelligence agents from Moscow, while the Nazis turned Republican–held cities into bombing ranges for their emerging air force. Even when ideology binds movements together, their national and nationalist characteristics can’t be ignored, and that’s particularly true when there is no overarching ideology. The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square wave Egypt’s red, white, and black flag and sing their national anthem at protests. When they demand “bread, freedom, and social justice,” they are speaking for their countrymen, not the workers of the world.

There is no unifying internationalist ideology in the global uprisings to date, but there is a complex nexus of  financial and political power that the Egyptian revolutionaries—and their counterparts from Oakland to Athens—are fighting against. Consider tear gas. The seemingly endless supply used to blanket downtown Cairo last month, asphyxiating protesters and burning the eyes of shopkeepers a mile away, was made by Combined Systems Inc., a Pennsylvania-based weapons producer. The tools of crowd control come with American labels, and the business relationship is increasingly a tactical one. “We saw the firm stance the US took against Occupy Wall Street,” a presenter on Egyptian state television reportedly said about the protesters in Tahrir. “[The tear gas] is used by police forces in many countries around the world including our own,” said US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner when asked about Egyptian deaths from tear gas.

People occupying public spaces around the world are challenging the fundamental structures of power. Along the way they are constructing multilateral relations that transcend borders and bypass state structures. Egyptian revolutionaries have visited Occupy Wall Street and held teach-ins. Occupy protesters from Oakland and Eugene are Skyping with protesters in Egypt to trade tactics and strategies. In mid-November, Egyptians organized an International Day to Defend the Egyptian Revolution that saw protests in more than twenty cities around the world. During the tear gas bombardment of Tahrir, activists in New York demonstrated outside Combined Systems’ New York distributor’s office. These actions and connections are not simply about adding another body to the fight as Orwell—or the American students—did.

Early this year, I met an Egyptian revolutionary named Sherief Gaber; at the time he had two black eyes and a swollen nose from getting a brick to his face during a battle with pro-Mubarak thugs. Gaber was one of those who made the call for the international day of solidarity with Egypt. He believes there’s great potential in a transnational network that can oppose and shame multinational corporations. But he also sees a more basic outcome from global solidarity. “It’s the simple fact of saying, ‘We’re not alone’ and ‘We’re not wrong.’”

Image: A protester throws a tear gas canister back at riot police near Tahrir Square in Cairo, November 22, 2011. From theatlantic.com.

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