Letter From Cairo

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Frederick Deknatel




Letter From Cairo by Frederick Deknatel

Because riot police aimed their firearms at protesters’ faces, over 80 Egyptians lost one of their eyes.

December 5th, 2011 reset - +

Photograph courtesy of Frederick Deknatel

"WHY ARE WE DESTROYING our own city with our own hands?" the architect Nairy Hampikian asked last month in Magaz, an Egyptian design magazine. She was speaking of the decades of poor planning and infrastructure in Cairo under Hosni Mubarak's regime. In the same publication, architect May al-Ibrashy wrote, "Cairo, always fast, has now become furious. Stadiums as battlegrounds... buildings as burning effigies (the list is endless but the unrivaled favorite seems to be Ministry of Interior buildings)..." Both writers may have been anticipating the urban conflict to come: in the battle for Egypt between protestors determined to be heard and a military determined to silence them, space, and who controls it, is as much the focus of the contest as anything else.

 

This month's battles between military police and protesters outside the cabinet and parliament buildings, just south of Tahrir Square, are a prime example. In the early morning on Friday, December 16th, regime thugs and military police threw furniture, plates, bricks, and cement blocks onto a few hundred protesters who for three weeks had been sitting-in peacefully outside the cabinet building. The ensuing street battles were contests of space. At least thirteen people died and hundreds more were injured over the first three days, as they fought to control Qasr al-Ainy Street, a central boulevard that houses many government buildings and connects to Tahrir from the south. Like the violence of late November, when over forty protesters died fighting the Central Security Forces for control of Mohamed Mahmoud Street (one of the main arteries leading out of Tahrir Square), this latest spasm of violence was not just about freedom or human rights: it was about urban control.

 

In the battle of Qasr al-Ainy Street, the fight was directed against specific buildings, most of all the cabinet building from which uniformed soldiers and military police attacked protesters (one, caught on camera, even urinated on them). The buildings became symbols as well as tools of oppression, with the military attacking civilians from the rooftops. Detained protesters were dragged into the parliament, known as the People's Assembly, where they were beaten. Rocks and Molotov cocktails were thrown both at and from the cabinet building, an adjacent government office, and the Ministry of Transportation, just up the street. Regime toughs and military police attacked from the roof of the Institut d'Égypte, a valuable national archive built after Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798.

 

Molotovs hit the institute - exactly who threw them is not clear - and the military allowed the building to burn, along with its vast collection of two-hundred year old books and manuscripts. Soldiers didn't try to save the volumes of national heritage housed inside; protesters did. A photo quickly spread on Twitter of a man cradling a stack of old books rescued from the burning building, his head covered with a plastic chair to protect him from rocks thrown and bullets fired by military police. The Big Pharaoh, an Egyptian blogger, posted the photo with the message: "I just want u to look at this pic closely. Look & contemplate. Look & feel proud." According to al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt's largest independent daily, young men who ran into the still-burning building on Saturday to save the books were shot at and hit with rocks. "They fired at us with shotguns," a man named Ahmed told the newspaper. "A little kid was hit with 11 pellets in the neck." Al-Masry al-Youm reported that a man carrying books from the smoldering institute had his back broken by a rock on his way out.

 

A salvage operation began days later outside a state archive building along the Nile, where academics, specialists, and other volunteers sifted through the charred remains of the institute's 192,000-volume collection. "When the government wants to protect something, they do," Ahmed el-Bindari, one of the volunteers, told the Associated Press. "Try to reach the Interior Ministry or Defense Ministry buildings. You won't be able to."

 

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On Saturday December 17 the battle of Qasy al-Ainy Street escalated when military police rushed into Tahrir Square to beat protesters and journalists. The crackdown produced the now notorious image of a woman in jeans being dragged and beaten by military police. They ripped her abaya off and exposed her blue bra before they stomped on her chest. "As the tortured face of Khaled Said broke any credibility the ministry of the interior might have had," Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif wrote in the Guardian, "so the young woman in the blue jeans has destroyed the military's reputation." I hope Soueif is right.

 

A national Gallup survey published in late November quantified Egyptians' broad support for the military - 90 percent said they had confidence in them - while also revealing that, more than any other citizens in the world, Egyptians (97 percent of them) reject the targeting or killing of civilians, whether by individuals or the military. The ruling junta in Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), tested these two opposing sentiments by unleashing military police with batons and live ammunition - after the current interim prime minister, Mubarak ally Kamal Ganzouri, denied, in a statement televised minutes before the attack, that the military had or would use violent force against protesters.

 

Sitting in a Cairo airport terminal Saturday morning, I watched a screen at the departure gate tuned to Nile TV, a state channel. It showed the hazy images of street battles earlier before dawn. The state media coverage portrayed protesters as thugs targeting parliament, and the soldiers, naturally, as defenders of parliament and the country. Saturday's edition of al-Tahrir, an independent, critical newspaper founded earlier this year, struck a different tone. It asked, in bold red type at the top of its front page: "Did the army consult the advisory council in its savage dispersal of the sit-in?" The generals formed the civilian advisory after the recent elections to give, in theory, a civilian check to military rule and a role in drawing up a new constitution. But with the military brutality on Qasr al-Ainy Street, the council suspended its activities, and eight members of the council quit in protest. On Sunday al-Tahrir's front page carried the infamous photo of the woman being stripped, dragged, and beaten by military police. The headline said only, "Liars." By Monday morning, al-Tahrir, over a file photo of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi sitting in regalia with Mubarak, asked, "Who rules Egypt now, the field marshal or his president?"

 

I spent two weeks in Cairo mostly talking to architects, planners, and preservationists about the city's urban development under Mubarak. The violence that began on Friday changed Hampikian's question. The destruction now involved more than Cairo's architectural past and future. The flames, bullets, and stones flying back and forth downtown were destroying not just its architectural monuments but its other cultural treasures and its social contract. The military, as it had on Mohamed Mahmoud Street at the end of the battle in late November, dispatched cranes to stack massive concrete blocks across the street, to thwart protesters. There are now two walls on Qasy al-Ainy Street — one in front of the cabinet and parliament, another in front of the burned Institut d'Egypte — and a third wall just around the corner from the library, on Sheikh Rihan, the street that leads to the Interior Ministry. Cairo under Mubarak's generals has been sealed off, walled, and blocked. Sidewalks downtown have lost their pavement, because protesters quarry them into projectiles to throw at police armed with tear gas, batons, and rubber and live bullets. The question has become not only one of what is being destroyed in Cairo, but of what is being built in the military council's effort to contain the revolution.

 

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The graffiti and street art that since late January has covered the walls, buildings, public toilets, and the sides of under- and overpasses in central Cairo express some of Egypt's revolutionary fervor, and have attracted more than their share of media attention. But my favorite tag is a defaced plaque outside the massive, fourteenth-century mosque of the Mamluk Sultan al-Zahir Barquq, on al-Muizz street in the historic center of Cairo. The Ministry of Culture and Cairo Governorate in the last decade restored the mosque as part of a broad, tourism-boosting restoration project. As with all the restored monuments, a huge marble plaque fastened to a wall near the doorway commemorates their work. But now black graffiti covers the gaudy inscription honoring the patronage of Hosni Mubarak, his wife Suzanne, the regime's empress of cultural sponsorship, and the former culture minister, Farouk Hosny, Mubarak's longest-serving minister.

 

A cranky tour-guide outside Barquq said thugs had defaced the plaque since the January uprising; he was obviously upset at the lack of tourists he could shake down for a climb to the top of Barquq's minaret. I like to think the author of the graffiti was a local resident alienated by the regime's callow historic preservation efforts, which treats local Egyptians as either a problem or a threat to the tourist potential of the monuments. Under Mubarak, the Ministry of Culture and the Supreme Council of Antiquities' management of cultural heritage can be read as vanity projects for state preservation, symbolized in part in these plaques.

 

"The government sees people as a nuisance," Yahia Shawkat, an architect who works in heritage planning, told me. "If you look at any plan done by the Supreme Council of Antiquities and some of its consultants, you're going to find the red spot on the map is the local community next to the monument or the heritage area."

 

A few side streets away, in the heart of Gamaliya, where Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz grew up, a similar plaque commemorates the restoration of the wikala of Bazar'a. Built in the seventeenth century, the wikala, or caravanserai, was a market and inn where merchants sold wares from ground-floor storerooms off the large central courtyard, and lived upstairs in the guest rooms and apartments of the three upper floors. The two biggest names on the plaque are Hosni Mubarak and his wife Suzanne. Like other restored buildings from other wikalas to the forlorn palaces of Mamluk princes, the wikala of Bazar'a often sits empty, save for a few curious tourists. It is meant to be a cultural center, but all that really means is that it hosts the occasional concert, and was otherwise rentable for a private party or function, for the right price and the right people, in the late years of Mubarak's rule.

 

Upstairs at the wikala, in a dusty room that was once a merchant's apartment, I talked to Hania Mamdouh Khalifa, an architect from the Ministry of Culture who directs the field office for the on-going restoration in Gamaliya, which now entails repaving the medieval street. I expected coy answers about a project criticized for displacing local commerce that didn't cater to tourists, in the name of turning this busy heart of Cairo into an "open-air museum." But Khalifa was not coy. "Right away we are looking out for the tourist," she said "because the tourist is number one for our project: to make it an open museum." Bigger plans — like turning the wikala of Bazar'a into a hotel, as Farouk Hosny had imagined — were on hold, like most things in Egypt today. But the main street in Gamaliya is still being torn up. While tourists are few, the area is busy with workers in jumpsuits and hardhats from Arab Contractors, a massive construction conglomerate close to the state that won the government contract for the urban renewal work.

 

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The five days of clashes in and around Tahrir in late November killed more than 40 people. Because riot police aimed their firearms at protesters' faces, over 80 Egyptians lost one of their eyes. The eye-patch has thus become the latest symbol of the protesters' resiliency, but also of the increasing violence with which the ruling military junta and the still-intact security state deal with them in the midst of parliamentary elections. Small protests where everyone wears an eye-patch have taken off. Activists have covered the eyes of statues around Cairo with patches, including the eye of Um Kalthoum, the diva of Egypt and the wider Arab world in the mid-twentieth century, a heady period of nationalism and post-colonial independence. Her statue stands on the leafy island of Zamalek, outside an HSBC bank and a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf café.

 

One of the lions guarding the 1930s-era Qasr al-Nil bridge that leads downtown is also wearing an eye-patch. An image of it recently spread online. It had first appeared last spring on the cover of a local culture magazine, al-Rawi, for a special issue on how heritage "struggles through the revolution." The photo-shopped, eye-patched lion went viral after late November's violence, appearing again and again on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. But unlike much of the uprising's graffiti and protest imagery, this one wasn't made by a revolutionary graphic designer during the battle of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, but by al-Rawi, a quarterly, bilingual magazine, "Egypt's heritage review."

 

On Friday night I stood near the cabinet building with a friend and journalist, watching stones and Molotovs fly back and forth, as the fight moved to an adjacent government building next door. Most people were there to watch, it seemed, or to urge the kids throwing stones and Molotovs — many of them barely teenagers, smoking cigarettes and chucking pieces of pavement — to stop. But they wouldn't, because the soldiers and plainclothes thugs were on the other side of the wall, and on the roof above, throwing whatever they could onto the people in the street.

 

On Saturday the 17th, during the violence in Tahrir, but before the army stormed the square, a man stood against the wall of the Mugamma', which houses the government's sprawling, inept bureaucracy, and painted a mural of a martyr. It was Emad Effat, a popular sheikh from al-Azhar, Cairo's seat of Sunni learning, who was killed in the clashes with military police the night before. A video uploaded by a Cairo media collective called Mosireen captures a man with a brush, painting the sheikh's face, while behind him the Institut d'Egypte spews smoke and flames. It is a bizarre, bleak snapshot of a city: commemorating fallen protesters while an historic library burns in the background. Men lean against railings, and against walls, watching.

 

News coverage of the increasing bouts of street violence portrays Cairo as a city taken over by clashes. But even during the worst violence, most of the city endures, and, despite what is happening in Tahrir, keeps on going. As the army broke up the sit-in outside parliament, the rest of downtown Cairo, blocks from the frontline, was as quiet as it can be on any given Friday, the day of gathering for Muslims and the start of the weekend in Egypt. Political commentators and analysts use this contrast to cast the young, eager revolutionaries as out of touch with the majority of Egyptians. They might not condone the SCAF's crackdowns, but many Egyptians are nonetheless occupied with everyday worries that state media never tires of bringing up: security, stability, and a sinking economy. Beyond this disparity between the square and the city there are complications within Tahrir itself. In the center that symbolized the collective unity of the eighteen-day uprising that brought down Mubarak, some people fight while others try in vain to end the fighting. Some run into a burning building to save books, and others just watch.

 

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