Friday, July 15, 2011

July 15th Protests in Tahrir

Parachute pundits like talking to taxi drivers. They’re a one-stop shop to get the view from the street. The problem is taxi drivers – no matter how emphatically they claim to speak for their society – only speak for themselves. Extrapolate at your own risk.

This morning I jumped into a cab and told the driver to take me to Tahrir Square. Today massive protests were planned throughout Egypt, and I wanted to see whether the revolutionaries could build on the momentum from last week. My driver beamed with excitement when he heard our destination. He exclaimed, “As soon as I earn enough today to feed my kids, I’m going straight to Tahrir!”

I could’ve very easily written a taxi driver journalism piece on that quote alone: “Concerns that the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square have lost touch with the Egyptian street are overblown. Yes, the sit-in has caused some daily inconveniences for the average Egyptian, but as this taxi driver explained, the people still support the protests.”

But then I got into another cab and the story changed. Leaving the protests this afternoon, I asked the driver what he thought of the protests. He sighed before explaining, “Once, the protests were a beautiful thing, but today…no longer.” He went on to explain that the protests are fragmenting Egyptian society, damaging the economy, causing congestion, and could lead to chaos.

So which taxi driver is right? Do Egyptians generally support the Tahrir sit-in and protests? Or are they growing fatigued? For me, it’s an academic question. For the revolutionaries, it’s an essential one. The future of Egypt will be determined not by the 1% who chant in Tahrir, but by the 99% who hear those chants on TV. If the revolutionaries lose that 99%, then they will lose the revolution as well.

From my outsider perspective, I am increasingly worried that the revolutionaries are in danger of doing just that. Tahrir is a magical and exciting place, addicting even. It is also a bubble. So determined to achieve the demands of the revolution, the protesters in Tahrir may not fully perceive the shifting mood beyond the square.

Today’s protests were significantly smaller than last week. Some of this decrease is certainly because the Muslim Brotherhood refused to participate again (though some of its members unofficially joined). The hot weather also probably deterred some Egyptians from attending. But the question remains to what extent has support for the protests dissipated.

Earlier this week, Ramy Raoof wrote a blog post in Arabic on why he participates in the sit-in in which he lists a set of clearly demarcated and justified demands from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Yet Ramy’s post fails to answer the primary question he sets out to answer: why is a sit-in the best method of achieving those demands?

The revolutionaries should be asking that question among others. Besides protests, how else can they achieve their goals? Are some demands more essential than others? Can some goals be put off for later? Are their fellow Egyptians growing tired of protests? If so, how can they reinvigorate the spirit of the revolution? Do most Egyptians agree with the outlined goals, and if not, how can they be brought around?

When I recently voiced these concerns to my friend, he shrugged them off. He explained that at every stage, people have urged the revolutionaries to cash in on what they have earned and go home content. And at every stage, the revolutionaries have been right to keep pushing the envelope further. He suggested there’s no reason to think the revolutionaries have gone astray now.

Moreover, I know the people in Tahrir are debating these issues – in tents, on blogs, at tweet-ups, and on the streets. They are motivated, skilled, organized, and dedicated. And unlike me, they don’t need to rely on one-off taxi rides to gauge the public mood.

At the protest, I talked with a young teenager. When I asked him why he chose to go to Tahrir today, he boasted that he hasn’t left the square for a week. Echoing a popular protest chant, he vowed to stay until victory.

*You can see all my pictures from today's protest here.

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