I was detained at the airport coming into Cairo this time. When the woman at the control desk swiped my passport through the computer, a startled look filled her face below the hijab. She waved me down to the far, last lane: a place where Palestinians and stateless people congregate, in that limbo between borders where one is at the government’s mercy without having any claim on it. I lingered there an hour or so, generally ignored, and then an officer led me off to a remote room, somewhere past the lost-luggage desk. He locked the door behind me.
This was a dispiriting chamber, flat under faint fluorescent light, with empty chairs and graffiti on the walls: “Gaza” recurred over and over, with different dates, expressive as a scream. Another man sat there, Egyptian. He worked in Africa, had lost his passport there, and was trying to enter on a consular document. “Did they turn the key?” he said.
“Shit on these shitholes. I hope their shit eats shit and dies of it,” he said, matter-of-factly. “They should die in the shit that they shovel onto others. How are you?”
It took three hours, and it mostly consisted of waiting. If I’ve learned anything from dealing with state officials, as investigator or victim, it’s that it’s pointless to ask questions. Silence elicits information as well as anything does; it makes them do the asking, and that tells you what they don’t know. In my case, they didn’t know why they wanted me. “You are on a security list,” an officer finally told me.
“Why?” I ventured.
“We’re not sure, but we have to check you for security.”
I’m not certain either what “checking me” entailed — Googling me? calling my parents? In any case, they finally released me into mother Egypt, not long after my sans-papiers colleague. (“Goodbye,” he said, “enjoy the shit.”) The whole episode explained why I had been similarly stopped (minus the cell and the locked door) the last three times I entered the country — previously, I’d supposed the controllers simply appalled by my ragged and decaying passport, relic of too many sweaty days and back pockets. But apparently some bureaucrat actually has put my name down with a permanent interrogatory beside it: What is he doing here? I feel flattered: not so much at being imputed a fake importance, but because the State and I are finally asking the same question.
Borders leave scars here. Nine years ago, in Cairo, I interviewed an Egyptian who’d lived for years in the US — he’d claimed asylum there as a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group that Mubarak’s government suppressed savagely. 9/11 happened, and Hizb ut-Tahrir lost its credit with the US authorities. A few days after, police in his Connecticut suburb took him into custody. Never mind his pending asylum case; never mind the American woman he’d married. After a year in jail, they deported him to Egypt. As he came into the Cairo airport in chains, a US immigration officer handed his case file to the passport police. It was the same as saying, “Torture him, please.” State Security held him for several weeks, and they went through the standard repertory: cold water, beatings, electroshock to the genitals. When I met him he still had memory lapses, lacunae that themselves bore witness to an interrupted life.
That happened because he crossed the invisible line of an imperial power. I represent the imperial power (“Permit the citizen/national of the United States to pass without delay or hindrance,” my brand-new passport says). And so I’m used to crossing borders free of fear. That said, the first thing you notice, coming back to Cairo after a year, is the sheer proliferation of borders. The boundary has decamped from the country’s edge, and now divides its center. I’m staying near the much-feared Ministry of Interior, and morning and night I walk through two barbed-wire barricades on either side of it, past milling and listless Central Security troops, and a soldier manning a rifle atop an armored personnel carrier.
Walls have risen all around the government quarter, to keep the people from reaching it. Take any side street, and you’ll run into a rampart. Here’s one across Qasr el-Aini street, one of the main entries to Midan Tahrir:
Here is a barrier protecting the security forces’ headquarters — you can see the Interior Ministry’s sinister radio tower looming in the rear:
The graffiti is a Quranic verse, and it’s aimed at the State: “They will not fight you, except in fortified townships, or from behind walls. Their belligerence is strong among themselves. You would think they were united, but their hearts are divided: That is because they are a people without wisdom.”
The walls don’t dice up the city in any coherent way. They’re just meant to prevent protesters from accessing the State’s most sensitive points. But they stake out a symbolic division between the Revolution and the government: still at odds after two years and two elections. And, like most borders, they mark where people died.
47 people died a year ago along Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a green avenue leading from Tahrir. That’s a long story, like most in Cairo. In November 2011, the government decided to clear out the ongoing opposition sit-in from the main square, and Central Security Forces [Amn el-Merkazi] tried to use Mohamed Mahmoud as their route of attack. Protesters set up a defense line there. Security retaliated by building a wall. Five days of battle followed. Security gunfire blinded many demonstrators — the marksmen aimed straight at their eyes. Hundreds were injured: there’s no exact count. No one has been punished for the blindings or the deaths.
Mohamed Mahmoud also figured in the chaos of the last three weeks, which I hardly have the ability to summarize, though I’ll try. On November 19 protesters gathered on the street, to commemorate the previous year’s deaths. The Interior Ministry used tear gas to disperse them; in the ensuing days, clashes spread to the other margins of Tahrir Square. At least one young man was killed. Central Security holed up in a lycee on Mohamed Mahmoud — the Lycee Horreya, Freedom School (Cairo is beyond irony) — firing on the protesters from above and throwing rocks at them. Soon the school was almost completely torched.
Amid all this, on November 22 Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader narrowly elected President five months ago, issued a decree. Morsi has been ruling by decree ever since he was inaugurated. There’s nobody else to make laws; days before the presidential vote in June, the Constitutional Court disbanded the Parliament elected last year. (Since the Muslim Brotherhood were the dominant force in Parliament, many saw that move as Mubarak-era judges striving to deprive political Islamists of power. If so, though, it backfired, since the election promptly handed sole authority to an Islamist President.) Morsi’s new decree cemented his own decreeing power. He made his decisions immune to judicial review, until a new Parliament sits in some unspecified future. He also exempted the Constituent Assembly from judicial oversight. In effect, he decreed himself dictator.
Mubarak used to pick judges specifically for their willingness to jail Brotherhood members. Morsi and his party therefore loathe the only-supposedly-independent judiciary, something that seems both reasonable and requited. The Constituent Assembly, though, is what’s at the center of this mess. The now-dissolved Parliament had chosen the Assembly to write a new constitution for Egypt. Predictably, since the Brotherhood ran Parliament, they picked a Constituent Assembly that they ran too. Nearly all secular and liberal representatives had already withdrawn from it in protest. Most people expected the Constitutional Court to decide, in a pending case, that the Assembly itself was illegitimate. Morsi’s decree forestalled that, giving the Assembly (and hence the Brotherhood) fiat over Egypt’s future.
When I arrived on November 23, the lemony tang of tear gas constantly drifted south from central Cairo, and the thud of bursting cannisters punctuated night and day. Protests had broken out in cities across the country. There was impotence in the anger, a rage at everything going wrong. I went to Mohamed Mahmoud the next night, just under the lycee where Central Security had their bastion. Teenagers with rocks and Molotov cocktails were tearing apart a parked car, for no apparent reason except they couldn’t get at the killers four stories up. A few days later the cindered car still sat there, beneath a scraggle of graffiti that said “Happy Birthday.”
After Morsi’s decree, the Assembly scurried to submit a proposed Constitution, and Morsi scheduled a rush referendum for December 15. The protests have continued: here’s a scene from a massive opposition march on November 27, as the crowd stops to jeer in front of the headquarters of Morsi’s party downtown.
It’s not that the draft Constitution is unspeakably worse than the existing one; it’s not even that it offers some instant blueprint for Islamist rule. Neither, despite the melodrama opponents indulge, is true. (A comparison of the two Constitutions is here; an analysis of the more controversial new provisions, here.) The rage is rather that the Revolution was thwarted from producing something better: and that Morsi is forcing down this ploddingly inept document by the old means of extralegal rigging. It’s also anger at two years in which the State has consistently brutalized its own people rather than answer their demands. Whether under Mubarak, the military, or Morsi, the government chose to build barricades against its citizens — and shoot them, to kill.
As an outsider, the anger concerns me more than the Constitution; I can feel the first, while the second is an abstraction. I don’t even know how to write about the rapes, except you have to, because they’re everywhere. My first day here, the office where I’m working asked me for information about rape kits; two women had come to them after they were raped near Tahrir. That night, I went to a friend’s flat; her neighbor had been gang-raped along with another woman, dragged into a dark side street in the vicinity of the Square.
Sexual harassment, the show of men’s physical power over women in public space, has been a political issue in Egypt for several years. Yet no one was prepared for sexual violence on this scale. Some activists have claimed the Muslim Brotherhood has gathered roving mobs to rape protesting women; in the UK, the Daily Mail has blazoned this rumor eagerly. No one actually knows, because no actual people have been accused or caught. Central Security only comes near Tahrir to taunt or shoot protesters, not to protect them. For anybody else, there’s virtual impunity in much of downtown.
A vigilante spirit roams Egypt. The police largely disappeared after the Revolution. There are just enough traffic cops at intersections to maintain the show of somebody being in charge. But for nearly all Egyptians, the police were the government’s most corrupt, intrusive and abusive visage: everybody had to deal with them, everybody despised them, and they were the one part of the State that, in the chaos of regime change, had the self-preserving sense to melt away. In many neighborhoods now, officers wouldn’t dare show their faces on patrol if you tripled their pay. Central Security Forces are supposed to fill the gap. These are ill-trained army recruits, mostly from the provinces, deputed to urban policing tasks that they have no clue how to fulfill. One reason so many demonstrators have been slaughtered since the Revolution is simply that Central Security has no experience in crowd control. State Security [Amn el-Dawla], Mubarak’s dreaded secret police, at least knew how to contain a dissident gathering, up to a certain size; but they’re officially defunct (meaning they’ve gone underground). The raw boys of Central Security carry only the fears fed them by their superiors, and their guns.
In this environment, communities themselves — the neighborhood, the extended family — take up the responsibility for “security.” Communal cooperation is part of the Egyptian genius. Yet the immediate result is to make outsiders suspect by definition. I’ve seen this first-hand: last year, trying to get to a demonstration near the Defense Ministry in the Abbasiyya quarter, I found myself amid a mob of local residents running to attack the intruders, armed with large knives, all convinced that their streets and homes themselves were under attack from people who didn’t belong. (Since I fell in that category, I count myself lucky that I don’t have more pieces of myself to count.) I can easily imagine the rapes as product of a nightmarish moral vigilantism: the work of men convinced these women aren’t proper Egyptian women, that if not controlled they will invade our streets and our places, that they must be punished.
Even beyond the stories of rape, something ominous is afoot. It’s hard not to feel that the Revolution has actually reinforced patriarchal control of women: not the way you might think, by reinstating religion, but rather by making men identify more deeply with an ethos of protection. I talked in recent days with Egyptian researchers doing ethnography in two working-class and conservative neighborhoods in Cairo. The men and women they’ve interviewed alike have stressed their fears about safety. Everyone’s heard rumors about the rapes. Moreover, everybody subsists in terror of a crime wave, even if they haven’t actually seen crimes. And men have locked stricter controls on “their” women, their wives and daughters, in response: restrictions on going out unaccompanied, walking alone, staying out at night. Women lose not only mobility but social cohesion if they can’t meet one another freely, and economic independence if they can’t make it to market or work (as many do) as street vendors. Men, meanwhile, gain power in reclaiming a traditional role as guardians. (It’s at least some compensation for the lost jobs of a collapsed economy.) There are political implications to these shifts, although they’re hard to read. As a guardian State slowly reasserts its legitimacy, incarnate in a patriarchal figure like Morsi, will men identify with it, or resent its encroachment? Or both at once?
Vigilantes patrol on both sides now, in fact: the bad vigilantes cut hair and enforce modesty, and the good vigilantes protect their women from all that. You can see the guardian role in all manner of places — among the middle class, for instance, in last Tuesday’s mass opposition march, where men formed a cordon around women protesters to safeguard them. (There’s even a Twitter account for this now, @Tahrirbodyguard, “A collective effort to ensure safety in Tahrir, especially for women” –oddly, it’s all in English.) The thing is, it’s a little hard to be caught between all these protectors. If you want to see the dilemmas this poses for feminism, consider this anti-sexual harassment graffiti, from Mohamed Mahmoud Street:
The central two panels are about women empowered. The top one says (roughly) “If he calls you a hot slut, use a weapon”; the bottom, “No matter how much of my body shows or doesn’t show, it’s free and can never be humiliated.” But the bottom left carries a different message, and it’s not for women at all: “Be a man! Protect her!”
This call to be a man is heard quite a bit in Cairo. Masculinity itself seems to be at stake, in the brutal clashes where the walls stand. ¿Quien es mas macho? Which side holds the monopoly on manhood? What does being a man mean, anyway? Here’s graffiti I saw a year ago, from the Association of Detainees of the Revolution, calling for a sit-in:
“Man up! Take to the streets with us, your Revolution has been stolen!” And the chant rang out at rallies against the army — a reminder that our side is more manly than the soldiers, even: “Man up and shout! The military’s time is ending soon!”
But manhood is at stake because manhood is in question. It’s a wounded, brutalized manhood, aware of its vulnerability. Two years of incessant violence have both mutilated it and shaped it. It’s in pain, and it lashes out.
That’s the thing I apprehend most of all, this time in Cairo: the exhaustion, the hurt, the pain. I don’t think one can underestimate how these years of killing have brutalized a society. The grinding gradualness of it all has been part of the effect (as well as the break with the enforced placidity of the Mubarak years before). Of course, one doesn’t speak of the whole society ground down. Most of Egypt is still the Party of the Couch, with windows closed against the tear gas. Two of the culture’s naked extremities, though, seem to have been most exposed, and left most clotted with rage: the poorest and the not-quite privileged-yet, the underclass who feel they’ve nothing left to lose and the young intellectuals and students; the utterly dispossessed, and those who possess nothing but their promise. I have no inclination to sentimentalize either, and I usually resist both organic metaphors and those vertical ones that claim to arrange social classes in their natural elevations. Still and all, it feels like killing a society at the root and at the leaf.
A friend who works with street children reminds me that they’ve been in the front lines of the clashes for months: kids as young as eight or nine making Molotov cocktails and pitching them at Security forces along Mohamed Mahmoud. There are tens of thousands of homeless children in Cairo. They’re enraged; and many of them have already lost friends to the government’s bullets. These martyrs of the Revolution mostly aren’t counted, and they tend to end up in unmarked graves. Their despair, though, replicates that of traumatized middle-class kids in a different key. A 21 year-old student told Al-Ahram earlier this year that “Since the revolution began, with the exception of the month of August, I’ve lost at least one friend every month.”
Some of the consequences of this brutalization show through the powerful street art that has been painted on the walls along Mohamed Mahmoud Street. These pictures are secular icons, a record of the Revolution’s martyrs, but also a symptomography of the body under the State’s pressure. It’s a kind of political lexicon of pain.
Some portraits of the martyrs are deliberately benign, unphysical, the dead as spiritualized angel. This one says only, “Mostafa Metwally: 1994 – 2012.” (Metwally died at 17 in February’s “football massacre” in Port Said.)
The angel here is flecked with blood: “The Martyr Mohamed Seri. By Kamal Abdel Mobdy.”
The accompanying poem tries to tie him to earth by weighting him with national history:
The first country and first people we are
Seven thousand years old we are
Night comes to our country and turns to light through us
The greatness of pyramids tells who we are
The rooted ancient people we are …
But other figures seem too dense with their own particularity, and the terrible fact of their loss, to need the ballast. On the left: “Karim Khozam: An icon of moral commitment: 2-12-1992” (he also died in the Port Said massacre). On the right: “Alaa Abdelhady: One of the martyrs of the Cabinet clashes” (a medical student, he was shot near the central government building almost a year ago).
Some images emphasize mutilation. This shows Ahmed Harara, who lost one eye during the January Revolution, and the other while fighting on Mohamed Mahmoud Street:
And some images bloat with pain till they terrify. These could be by Francis Bacon:
A line above them reads: “And to the State, it’s God’s will. Meaning, they owe nothing for your death.”
The figure at left below is a version of the tortured body of Khaled Said, killed by police in Alexandria in 2011. Here, its deformation pushes back at the formalities of perspective.
The figure at right seems haloed unbearably in its own exploding head.
The line above the images reads, “If the picture is not clear enough, believe me: The reality is uglier.” The pictures, though, are part of the reality, of a body politic at extremity. If they are hard to look at, imagine living with –or in — them.
Tarek Mustafa, Maysara Omar, Ramy Youssef, and Nada Zatouna helped me think through aspects of this post.