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Monday, February 27, 2012
A Visit to Egypt
I had been in Egypt last July at the time that Tahrir Square was under full occupation. At that time I walked around the Square from tent to tent looking for people who spoke English. I got into lots of conversations. People were extremely interested, willing to talk, and also a little suspicious. They wondered whether I was a spy, either for Israel or the US or both. But that didn’t stop them from talking with me and showing me around.
I went again early in February. Before going, I received the following note from a Westerner living there:
“I must warn you, it's very dangerous to come here and do what you’re doing now. Trying to build unions here now is almost a death sentence, or maybe just a good beating; these groups are all infiltrated by Egyptian informers and you will be reported very fast. The military here hasn’t done too much to Americans here but scare them and arrest them for a while. But, they are pretty pissed off right now due to all the democracy groups coming to Egypt and trying to help change the country, not to mention the spies. (This refers to the NGO’s, some of which represent both the Republican and Democratic Parties.) Most every foreigner coming here is suspected as a spy first and foremost. DONT even come here if you are Jewish!!!!!! You will be arrested and accused of being an Israeli spy. Even if your intentions are good, you see what you are up against. The problem is you can’t blend in, you stick out like a sore thumb, lol.....everyone knows you are a foreigner right away and wonder what you are doing here.”
Because of this, I was a lot more cautious this time, but I did go around to the tents that were in the middle of Tahrir Square.
The central traffic island had the tents, but the rest of this large square was open to traffic. The protesters had called for a general strike, but it seemed that there was not a great response to the call. After walking around some I stopped at one tent and talked with one guy a little. The first thing he raised was Israel. He said he was against Jewish men. I simply said that I was completely against what Israel is doing, and that what had been done to Jewish people for ages Israel is now doing to others. He agreed and made some comment about it not being Jews themselves who are the problem, but Israel.
After a little bit we took a walk around and he stopped to talk with some friends. He didn’t introduce me or try to include me in any way. After a bit I walked off but he didn’t try to make eye contact or say good bye.
I found another tent with some slogans in both Arabic and English and stopped to talk.
While I was sitting there at night a guy came in. After a few minutes he took out a tear gas canister to which a key chain was attached. He started waving it a few inches in front of my face, pretending that he was going to set it off. I was pretty sure it was spent, but I still didn’t like it. I kept pushing it away and he kept trying to put it in front of my face. The other people were sitting there and telling me he was just playing around, but they didn’t stop him. All the while he was rolling eyes as if he were crazy or something. This went on for a minute or so, and then he stopped, gave me a big smile and shook my hand. I have no idea what it meant, but nothing like that ever happened to me the last time I was here.
Changes in Sentiment
I get the impression that there was a general feeling after Mubarak fell that they had made a huge step in solving their problems, and that the number one problem was the need for “freedom”. I also have some impression that there were illusions in the military before. Both of these feelings - really the illusions in bourgeois democracy that are inevitable under a dictatorship - have weakened. One issue that was raised was a difference of opinion that seems to have developed within the movement in Egypt. Some in the movement are saying that things have gone quite far and it is now necessary to step back and wait for change while others are saying that it’s necessary to keep on pushing.
The week before I arrived there was a riot at a soccer game in Port Said which resulted in the deaths of some 70 people. This seems to have made a deep impression. Some seem to believe that this event was stirred up by the police. In addition, several people told me that there is an increase in crime in Cairo. I also got reports of wide spread crime in cities outside Cairo. A couple of people told me that the SCAF has released criminals from prison in order to stir up confusion. Also that the police are intentionally allowing criminal activity (muggings, etc.) One guy I asked about that said that he thought it was largely a matter of the police not having the authority and confidence they used to have. Before, they could abuse somebody out in the open and nothing happened. Now, a crowd will gather and people might directly intervene. I was also told that there is some crime in Tahrir Square itself.
In any case, it’s usually true that in times of great social unrest, as old social orders come undone, that crime increases.
Also, the campaign against foreign “spies” seems to have had some effect. Some people are reluctant to meet with foreigners because they fear they will be accused of meeting with “spies”.
Several people expressed frustration with the state of the movement. One guy told me that its previous decentralized state was seen in two different ways. Some people felt that with the lack of a central leadership that there is nobody to sell the movement out. They viewed this as a source of strength. On the other hand, several people commented to me on the huge number of political parties and how dispersed the movement is. They saw the need for a strong, centralizing force.
However, the level of interest in politics still seems to be very high. Even at birthday parties, young people are giving political speeches!
On my second day in Cairo I met up with a guy in his 50s who had moved out of the country some 20 years ago and returned when the revolution started. This comrade expressed the feeling that the ordinary “man in the street” was losing a bit of support for the revolutionaries/activists because they didn’t see how it had improved their lives very much. This is similar to the Occupy Oakland movement. A difference in the two situations is that in Egypt there is a real rise in new, more radical unions. However, these unions are not very present in Tahrir Square. This comrade also agreed that it would help the revolution to advance if it linked the more long term goals with very immediate, concrete demands and took this to the Egyptian working class.
Street Battles in December
This comrade took me on a walk around Tahrir Square. In December, there were major protests and riots. What happened was that there were marches on the Ministry of the Interior and the army started shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at the protesters. Ultimately, the erected walls of huge concrete blocks across all the streets leading to that building. The main street along the side streets which are blocked off is empty of traffic. Back in July all these streets were full of cars as are almost all the streets in downtown Cairo. Now it’s empty, with people strolling along the middle of the street.
A few blocks from the Square is the former office where federal tax records were kept. I put it in the past tense because it’s completely burned out. A half block down, there is another one of these walls. I sat and talked with this older comrade. He told me that the night he came back to Cairo was the first night of these street battles. He described them to me. The protesters gathered planning on marching on the Ministry of the Interior. Suddenly the military launched a barrage of tear gas. The youth in the front picked up the burning hot canisters and threw them back. More tear gas and rubber bullets. The crowd retreated some, regrouped and advanced again. Some youth on motor cycles picked up the wounded and took them off.
Back and forth these battles raged for four nights. This guy said that at one point some young guy told him, “Old man, you stay back and leave these fights to us,” but he felt that if these young people could fight like this then he could too. Every night he left exhausted, having decided not to return but the next night he was back again.
“Wall Without Jews”
As we sat there talking a few young people gathered. And when I say “young” I mean young—as in about ten or 12 years old. These were kids who probably live on the streets. The bond between them was so clear. They walked down towards the wall. As they walked, one of them picked up a small stone and casually threw it at one of the windows of the burned out building. They climbed up to the top of the wall. Apparently there were soldiers on the other side. We didn’t get too close because you never know how they might have reacted to hearing us speak English, but you could see they were taunting the soldiers. One had a laser light he was shining at them. All appeared calm, but you never know when the soldiers might start shooting tear gas or rubber bullets and another riot would ensue.
As we sat there, another man passed by. He commented on the wall and the fact that the Israelis were building a wall to keep out the Palestinians but here “we have a wall without the Jews.”
I also visited a small peasant village a hundred or so miles south of Cairo. Being there was like being in a time warp. Horse drawn carriages were the taxis used and donkey carts abounded. Almost everybody wore traditional garb. In the evenings, the streets were clogged with cattle as the farmers brought their cows in from pasture.
I was told that during the height of the uprising that people in this village hardly reacted at all. They felt it didn’t affect them.
This village is probably not all that very much different from small peasant villages in Russia in 1917. It took a mighty crisis of world capitalism (World War I) to drive the villagers towards revolution as that crisis reached down and plucked up the young men of the villages and sent them to war. The crisis in the village must have been felt by those who came from the village – the rank and file soldiers – and drove them to revolution also. In that situation, the capitalist state had few if any troops it could use to kill off the revolution.
A similar deep social crisis will be required in countries like Egypt. Such a crisis is coming, possibly through an Israeli or joint Israeli/US attack on Iran. Such an attack would throw the entire region into crisis. Initially it would strengthen the fundamentalists including in Egypt, but it would also tend to put the present regime into crisis. Already there are signs of the military going the way of the Pakistani military, as one person pointed out to me in Egypt. While the Egyptian military – which has been the backbone of the state apparatus both under Mubarak and since – receives massive US aid, it is also moving against the US. This is probably partly to shore up a base of support within Egypt.
This would take place during a general crisis of world capitalism, which is not lost on Egyptian workers and youth. While I was in Egypt this time I had a long discussion with a couple of young science workers. They felt that socialism had failed due to the experience under Nasser. (Other workers – older ones – expressed to me a longing for a return to the days of Nasser.) They also initially expressed some support for the “free” market; they wanted “a free market with a heart”. (To which I replied that I wanted a pet lion who was a vegetarian.) However, it did not take much to convince them of the disaster of capitalism in this era.
Just as the revolution in Egypt has inspired a movement throughout the world, the continuing global revolutionary process will ultimately effect developments in Egypt and help carry that revolution forward.
While I was fairly cautious there, in general I found people to be extremely helpful and friendly. One guy, for instance, gave me a ride in his car when I stopped him to ask for directions to a particular address. Another more or less acted as my guide in getting a train ticket and getting seated in the second class railroad car. Once the train started, a worker across the aisle from me turned to me with the one English word that it seems every Egyptian knows, “welcome”. Then he shared his falafel sandwich with me (while I shared my water with him). I also had a humorous encounter with a couple of teenagers who were smoking something (and it wasn’t tobacco) as I passed them by on the street. “Hey,” one guy shouted from 20 feet away, “Bush good!” “No,” I replied, “Bush bad.” They then came running up to me, shook my hand, wanted to know my name and we talked as much as we could. “You, me good,” I said. “Bush, Obama bad.” They liked that a lot and even offered me some of what they were smoking. (I politely declined.)