Peter Hessler (China 1996-98) Reports in The New Yorker on Tahrir Square

November 24, 2012

Tahrir Square Turns Against Morsi

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On the edge of Tahrir Square, I met a twelve-year-old boy named Hassan Mohamed Abdel Hafiz who showed me an empty tear gas canister and a birdshot scar on his stomach. Scavenged canisters are a badge of honor for those who fight for the people who fight on the front lines of Egyptian protests; Hassan said he had acquired his after a battle with the police in front of the Lycée la Liberté, a block away from the square. He wore a filthy blue sweater with a thick collar that could be pulled up over his face whenever the tear gas got bad. Hassan was quick-eyed and alert; he spoke with the eagerness of a child but part of his attention was always directed at the street behind us, where injured protestors were carried past on their way to medical attention. The boy said that his elementary school education had ended shortly after the revolution forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign in early 2011. “The teachers did injustice to us after the President left,” Hassan said vaguely. “So me and my friends chanted slogans against the school, and they told us to leave.” He paused: “Look at that! An old man got hurt! Can you believe that? They’ll hurt anybody. I wanted to go back to school but they told me I couldn’t.”

He lifted his shirt to show off his scar. “That’s from Abbassiya,” he said. “From a birdshot cartridge.” He said he had seen a man die at Maspero. He claimed to have been on the front lines at Mohamed Mahmoud. In Cairo, where the cycle of protests has been more or less constant since 2011, and where the repetition of anger and violence has a tendency to blur, the most significant clashes are distinguished by nicknames: the twenty-fifth of January, Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud, Abbassiya. Each term has its own tangled history, like the etymology of a loanword that’s drifted in from a distant land. A church is demolished in Upper Egypt, five hundred miles away; protest marches are organized in Cairo; the marchers head toward Maspero, the state media building; soldiers attack and kill more than two dozen. Why did the soldiers attack? Who issued the order? What was the purpose? Why do such questions remain unanswered after more than a year? Let’s just call it “Maspero” and leave it at that.

Someday we may have a word for what’s happening right now. Even by Egyptian standards, the past week has been eventful: last Saturday, sixty children were killed in a terrible train accident in Asyut, a town in Upper Egypt, a tragedy that many people blamed on poor government oversight. On Tuesday, protests became violent as they commemorated the anniversary of last year’s clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, near Tahrir Square. On Wednesday, a cease-fire was brokered between Israel and Hamas, with the U.S. Administration giving much of the credit to the role of President Mohamed Morsi, who had been elected as a candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. On Thursday-less than a day after an Obama Administration official had praised Morsi in the Times as “somebody focussed on solving problems”-the Egyptian President suddenly issued a series of constitutional amendments that granted himself expansive new powers and rights, including immunity from judicial oversight.

“This is a way of recreating a dictatorship, of giving executive power to one person, with no regulation from the law,” Rami Shaath, one of the founders of the Free Egyptian Movement, an activist organization, told me yesterday. Shaath felt that Morsi’s amendments are particularly devious because they include three things that are popular among many Egyptians: increased support for the families of those killed in the revolution, the possibility of “new investigations and trials” against members of the old regime, and the dismissal of the nation’s top prosecutor, who was appointed by Mubarak. “That’s the teaser, the things we’ve wanted for a long time,” Shaath told me. “But he put poison along with it.”

Like many others, Shaath had marched to Tahrir in protest. By late afternoon, tens of thousands filled the square, chanting anti-Brotherhood slogans. “Be happy, Mubarak! Morsi is continuing down your path!” shouted one crowd. A group of men took turns praying atop a sign that featured Morsi in Tutankhamun’s golden headgear, along with the inscription: “Down with the Pharaoh President.” Many people believed that Morsi’s move was connected to American support; one sign read “U.S.A. Your Deal is Canceled.” The Gaza agreement was never top news in Cairo, where people have been much more concerned with the events in Asyut and the violence in Mohamed Mahmoud. Dr. Hussein Gohar, the international secretary of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, one of the most successful of the new non-Islamist parties, told me that some people suspected there is a plan to eventually place Gaza under Egyptian control. He believed that the U.S. Administration supported Morsi’s power grab. “It serves their purposes,” he said. “They want the security of Israel, and they want stability here. They want things to be under control in this region, and they want to continue to get oil from the Middle East.”

The protestors included a large number of affluent and educated people; it was common to see women whose heads were not covered. But this crowd stuck to the center of the square, away from the violence. The fighting raged a block away, along Mohamed Mahmoud, where young boys and men clashed with the police. They threw rocks and Molotov cocktails; periodically a tear-gas cannon boomed and everybody scattered. Sometimes the police used firehoses, as well as guns and birdshot. When I asked one young man why he had come, he answered in perfect English, “To beat the fuck out of the police.”

Many of these teen-agers had become fixated on the Lycée la Liberté. It’s a private French-language school, and although it has nothing to do with Morsi, or Gaza, or Asyut, the institution happens to be located on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. And reportedly there were police holed up inside the Lycée, so for three days straight the protestors had been pelting the walls and windows. They tore up chunks of pavement for ammunition; they climbed neighboring buildings to scout their targets; they wore kerchiefs against the tear gas. After nearly two years of protests, they were as practiced as an army-a group of kids whose education has been shaped largely by the violence around Tahrir. In the last few days, more than a hundred have been injured, and one teen-ager has been killed and another is in the hospital, where he has been declared clinically dead.

When I spoke through a translator to Hassan, the twelve-year-old elementary school dropout, he said that he had been fighting near the Lycée la Liberté. He explained why he disliked Morsi. “He fired the public prosecutor,” the boy said. “Now he’ll appoint a new one so that he can kill us and nobody will prosecute him.” He glanced over his shoulder; another injured man was carried past. My translator looked up and said, “You know, this kid actually makes a lot of sense.”


I’ve lived in Cairo for more than a year now. During that time, I’ve developed my own Tahrir routines-clothes that I wear, things that I carry. Cargo pants are best, so I have pockets for my camera, notebook, phone, passport. I always bring a facemask and tissues; I never carry a wallet. I wear shoes that I can run in.

I wish that there were equally simple rules for analyzing this place. But the only one I’ve come up with so far is: always try to tone things down. For Egyptians, this is a highly emotional time; there’s no easy way to recover from more than three decades of dictatorship. A terrible economy doesn’t help. The political forces are clumsy and inexperienced, and often it’s impossible to judge real intentions. But I tend to gravitate toward the less dramatic interpretation of events. When there’s a cease-fire in Gaza, and Morsi is described as the pivotal figure, my instinct is that this is probably an exaggeration. In the same way, I’m not convinced that we are seeing a Muslim Brotherhood attempt at dictatorship.

Some of this is basic logic. The Egyptian army is still powerful, and after decades of opposition it retains a deep institutional distrust of the Brotherhood. I don’t believe that anybody can become a dictator here without the full support of the army. Meanwhile, the opinion of the public still matters a great deal-protestors can gather at any moment, sometimes violently, and the media is essentially free.

And regardless of its intentions, the Brotherhood has hardly represented a force of change. For weeks now, whenever I talk to Caireans about Morsi, they say the same thing: he’s done nothing! The Gaza talks had virtually no impact on his popularity here, in part because they play into a common perception that he’s been too focused on international affairs. On the street, it’s difficult to find any evidence of the new regime. In the course of my daily routines, I’ve noticed only two things that have changed. One is that the guy who sells drinks outside my apartment building had to remove one of his refrigerators because of a half-hearted campaign to clear the city’s sidewalks. The other change, also connected to this campaign, is that the coffee shop where I like to study Arabic had to stop allowing shisha smokers to sit on the sidewalk. The coffee shop obeyed this restriction for about a month and then began to recover lost territory, inch by inch; now they occupy about a third of the sidewalk. The drink seller paid eight dollars and got his refrigerator back. And that’s it-since June, nothing else about daily life is noticeably different.

While many believe that Morsi is flush with a new sense of power, my instinct is the opposite-that he’s probably frustrated and worried about eroding public support. After seeing one constitutional assembly dissolved in the spring, he’s concerned that the same thing will happen to the group that’s currently working on a new constitution. Likewise, the dissolution of the parliament has left the country without a functioning legislative branch. Morsi, who has never had any experience in a democratic system, has responded by issuing a series of clumsy constitutional amendments that may have been aimed at improving efficiency, but only frighten people and inspire resistance. “I think it’s a miscalculation,” Rami Shaath told me on the square. “He thought that the boost he got in Gaza gave him an international presence.”

But all of this is guesswork; nobody knows the answers. Last night, at the end of a strange and exhausting week, I stood on Talaat Harb Street in downtown Cairo, watching people walk past. You can always tell a lot about a protest by the crowds that stream away from Tahrir-sometimes they’re bearded, sometimes they’re young, sometimes they head to the mosques. Tonight it was the kind of crowd that fills restaurants and bars. On the corner of the street, a television and film actress named Tayseer Fahmy held forth to a small group of people, denouncing the regime. Three young men walked by and I overheard them say something about drinking beer; we chatted for a while and then one of them leaned close and said, in English, “We’re Egyptian gays! Are you gay?” A few minutes later, a man followed a donkey down the road. He was carrying an Egyptian flag and shouting at the animal, “Go, Morsi, go! Mohamed Morsi must go!” People followed him, laughing and shouting; at that moment, even after all the rocks that had been tossed her way, it was hard to feel completely pessimistic about la Liberté.

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