September 5, 2013
Saturday morning, the Egyptian activist and artist Aalam Wassef slept in. He had been up late working on a new video—part of a series skewering Egyptian politics—but couldn’t figure out the ending. The short uses stop-motion to portray a standoff between a portable radio and a rotating audience of Army figurines, Muslim Brotherhood protesters, and revolutionaries from the 2011 uprising that toppled the dictator Hosni Mubarak. The radio changes its tune depending on the audience. There are intermittent gunshots. “Maybe the Army comes back in,” Wassef said, clearing the set off a small wooden table and replacing it with cups of espresso. “But then what?”
Wassef knows what he wants to say. Post-revolution, post-Brotherhood, post-post-Army Egypt is confusing, hypocritical. The military is back in power. The police are on the street in full force. Brotherhood leaders are in prison while their supporters protest in dwindling numbers. Over a thousand demonstrators have been killed, and more are in prison. The 2011 revolution, that hopeful time of mobilization and change, is buried beneath a heated, polarized rhetoric that seems to have less divided Egypt than knifed it apart. What was once a set of options, the Army or the Islamists, has morphed into something more visceral. Supporters of the coup see it as a choice between stability and terrorism; supporters of the Brotherhood see it as a choice between fascism and democracy. Wassef is looking for a third option. He’s not alone.
Wassef only really woke up after checking Facebook. Recently, he helped to found Masmou3, an online campaign reaching out to Egyptians who, like him, reject the military, the Brotherhood, and the interim government. Egypt is in an official state of emergency, and Egyptians seem intolerant of debate; the combination can make the street a dangerous place. Supporters of Masmou3 are asked to go on their balconies every night at nine and bang pots and pans to show their dissent. They are also asked to “like” the Masmou3 Facebook page, and the night before they had, in droves. “Look,” Wassef said, pointing to the page. “What we used to get in twenty-four hours we got in twelve.” He was happy. When the streets are full of tanks, curfew sends you home early, and the media screams about terrorism, a “like” on Facebook is a knock on an adjacent cell wall. Over eighteen thousand and it’s a cellblock party.
We watched another video, raw footage from a July protest in Sphinx Square, in the city of Giza. The protest was organized by a group that called itself the Third Square movement—separate from both Tahrir Square and Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, where Brotherhood supporters had gathered until the military crackdown earlier this summer—which came together to protest everyone in power. In the video, a young feminist named Ghadeer Ahmad leads a series of chants against both the military and the Brotherhood. She lists the military’s mistakes: the use of live ammunition against civilians; the virginity tests; the 2011 Maspero protests, when the Army and security forces killed twenty-eight people. In Arabic the words sound like they are braided together. Cars slow and drivers honk, showing their support. Wassef paused the video and pointed at a man who was leaning out of his car window, giving a thumbs-up—a real life “like.”
“This is what the country really needs,” Wassef told me. “[The protest in Sphinx Square] was extremely vibrant. It boosted me.” He sighed. “It was immediately accused by both sides of being—I don’t know what, in disguise.” Less than two months later, the Third Square video seemed like a relic of a very slightly more innocent time. The current environment has pushed those protesters inside, effectively downgrading a demonstration into a living-room commiseration. “They’re not showing their faces,” Wassef said. “But just because you turn the volume off on a radio it doesn’t mean that the tune stops playing.”
It’s hard to measure the middle. On the Web site of Baseera, a Cairo research center, there are polls that document approval for the Brotherhood (sixty-nine per cent disapprove); sympathy for the protests in favor of Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood leader who was ousted from the Egyptian Presidency in July (sixty-one per cent very unsympathetic); and the percentage of people who can name the interim President, Adly Mansour (fifty-one per cent). There’s no poll reflecting the number of Egyptians who support neither the Brotherhood nor the Army nor Mansour.
There is also no poll to measure how many people are too scared to be honest. Certainly a lot of people are scared. A media campaign has successfully equated the Brotherhood with terrorism, and oppressive measures like the curfew, the state of emergency, and the violence at Rabaa are presented as necessary for protecting Egypt’s national security. There is a creeping sensation that violence can occur at any moment, that the cause of the Brotherhood is destined to resort to desperate tactics.
“There is tremendous pressure to support this narrative, or else,” Issandr El Amrani, the North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, told me. “There is a curfew. The Army is in the street. In the nineteen-nineties, we were told they were fighting an insurgency. But the death toll in the last few weeks is higher than in two or three years during the nineteen-nineties.”
I wrote to H. A. Hellyer, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Brookings Institution who is an expert on the Middle East, hoping to get some clarity on Egyptians in the middle, about whom Hellyer has written. He said that he saw some hope in the legacy of the past two years. Compared to 2011, he said in an e-mail, “the support for the military is much stronger. But the numbers of those who are actively looking for a different alternative than the interim government, the military, and the Muslim Brotherhood, are far more.” He continued: “I do think that the youth bulge in the country; the increased numbers of those who want a truly different, progressive future; and the realization of people power means that it is certainly not square one for everything.”
For now, reaching these dissenters means either settling for the Internet or knocking on their doors. Across the Nile from Wassef’s downtown apartment, in the office of The Planet, a Web-site-design company, staffers lounge on beanbag chairs in front of walls covered in a collage of murals. Tarek Shalaby, a Web designer and member of the Revolutionary Socialists, also rejects everyone in power and supports Masmou3. He’s sitting on a black beanbag chair when I arrive, discussing with his colleagues what toppings to get on some delivery feteer—Egyptian pizza. He’s less laid back when talking about the country’s politics.
“It’s our fault,” Shalaby told me. “The polarization started with Shafik and Morsi. All the revolutionary groups are responsible for not providing a candidate or party or something for people to follow in defiance of polarization.” Shalaby was arrested in 2011, and is still on probation. If he’s arrested again, he will serve out his one-year prison sentence. “I’m not scared,” he said. “It’s stupid to be scared right now.” It’s a mixture of bravery and resignation—he’s not scared because he can’t act. “It’s very unlikely that people will take to the streets,” he said. “The curfew has been played beautifully by [the military] to get people to sit at home and watch counter-revolutionary propaganda.”
But Shalaby has a hidden talent: he is a decoder of dissent, seeing revolution everywhere. “Any sexual-harassment group, the fact that they want to defend the women’s right to attend protests—which is against [the military and the Brotherhood]—this is a revolutionary act,” he said. “The workers in the Mahalla factory are some the finest revolutionaries the world can produce.… When workers go on strike just because they want to improve their working conditions, this is a very revolutionary act.”
Six days after my meeting with Wassef, I e-mailed him to see how the video was coming along. Some new things had happened. Eleven members of the Muslim Brotherhood were sentenced to life in prison. Al Jazeera’s satellites were jammed. That morning, the Minister of Interior had narrowly survived a bomb attack. Wassef still didn’t know how his piece would end. In an e-mail, he summarized his script: “Army tanks rushing back to the radio, forcing it to play pro-Sisi songs. Then the radio stops, and bangs. Zoom in on the radio banging louder and louder. Cut. Now, who knows.”
Source: New Yorker
Photo: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters