Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sore Throats in Cairo

As many of you know, I just returned to Egypt after a two-year hiatus. Stepping off the plane into post-Mubarak Egypt, I didn’t really know what to expect. What is actually new about the New Egypt? And what remains the same?

Some things have not changed at all. The hospitality, the traffic, the noise, the heat, and the pollution all remain. Already, the all too-familiar smog-induced sore throat has returned.

But some things have changed entirely. I have immediately noticed the public sphere has become more vibrant and inclusive. Before the revolution, Egypt had a relatively free press compared to its neighbors. Red lines did exist and the regime did ensure it stood on the tallest soapboxes, but political dissent could be expressed and heard. The problem was that dissent was expressed and heard by a minority of Egyptians.

That seems to have changed in post-Mubarak Egypt. Some observers have pointed to the increased use of social media as evidence of a strengthening public sphere. For example, the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” – which supported and helped organize the revolution – boasts almost 1.5 million members. Yet with only 8% of Egyptians relying upon Facebook and Twitter to gets news about the revolution, it’s easy to overestimate the influence of social media.

Meanwhile, the traditional media have opened up since January 25th. Independent newspapers like Al-Masry Al-Youm and television channels like On TV are increasingly popular and trusted. Even the government mouthpiece, Al-Ahram, has caught (an admittedly very mild) revolutionary fever. Yet the change in traditional media is more evolutionary, than revolutionary. Censorship and propaganda, though more subtle, is still present. Although the envelope has been pushed back, red lines still persist – as Hossam el-Hamalawy recently learned.

The biggest change, then, has come in the way Egyptians interact on the streets. Whether on the plane, in a café, or in a taxi – every Egyptian I meet is eager to talk politics with me, a largely taboo topic last time I lived here. They listen attentively to my garbled Arabic before jumping in passionately.

Of course, the more important conversations are happening between the Egyptians themselves. As I walked through Tahrir this morning, I eavesdropped on one of several conversation circles (some more closely resembled shouting and shoving matches) that fill the square. This particular discussion focused on police brutality.

That issue will play a central role in tomorrow’s likely-massive protests. Every single major political force – with the exception of the Salafists - has announced their participation. Unlike the May 27th protests, major disagreements have been put aside to instead focus on the issues all sides can agree upon. In the words of Alaa Aswaany, “We will ask for purging the current government of the remnants of the old regime. We will demand fair and speedy trials for the killers of our martyrs. We will demand that civilians not have to face military tribunals under any circumstances. We will go to the square on Friday ready to pay the price of freedom. We will be like we were during the revolution, ready to die at any moment.”

The problem for Egypt is that despite all the tweeting, broadcasting, publishing and talking, the remnants of Mubarak’s regime remain in power. Key ministries are still run by Mubarak lackeys. Police who killed protesters go unpunished while 10,000 Egyptians have been prosecuted in military courts since the revolution. Families still do not know the fate of their loved ones missing since January. The New Egypt looks too much like the old Egypt – and that is why Egyptians will descend upon Tahrir tomorrow.

It is not clear whether the protests will clear out tomorrow night or if another sit-in will begin. Nor is it clear how the improved public sphere – of which tomorrow’s protest will play a part – can gain the political traction necessary to enact real change.

Leaving Tahrir, I passed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A lone man, bullhorn in hand, stood outside shouting at the top of his lungs in an act of defiance impossible before the revolution. A few meters away, plain-clothed officers stood at their post absolutely indifferent to the ruckus nearby. At least for today, the man would achieve little more than yet another sore throat in Cairo.

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