Egyptian Protests, Day Two

It has been a very surreal two days for us here in Egypt. We live in Maadi, and though there was one early account of a protest, the area has been quiet. Yesterday and today I have been monitoring the Twitter feeds, even after the service went down, allegedly at government behest, though they officially deny this. For those of you who are not Twitter-savvy, like myself, you can follow second-by-second coverage if you go to Google, type #Jan25 into search, and then watch people’s ‘tweets’ scroll down your screen.

Not everything here can be verified, of course, but it puts the urgency and immediacy of the moment right before your eyes. Yet, all around is calm and quiet. Certain websites have live feeds of news reports, carrying the stories that journalists and ordinary citizens report. Whereas yesterday, on Police Day, the protests were large-scale and generally tolerated until late in the evening, today’s reports tell of smaller numbers but greater resistance on the part of security forces.

My take, however ignorant: On Police Day I posted my expectations about the event, written the day before. I spoke about how Egypt was not like Tunisia, because while in Tunis the protests were driven by discontent with economic conditions led by the poor, and only later on joined by the middle class, in Egypt these protests seem to me to be upper and middle class driven. This can be seen by the great role Twitter and Facebook have played in rallying the cry for protest. But I also thought that the impact would fall short of Tunisia for this very reason. Frustrations of the middle class here run deep, but can they gain the numbers and sustain the pressure needed for wholesale change? I wondered, doubting.

As the protests swelled yesterday I, like everyone, including the government apparently, was surprised by the turnout. I was impressed by the generally peaceful nature of demonstrations – opposed to certain signs in Tunisia – as well as the restraint shown by the security forces. By the evening as nightfall came, greater efforts were made to displace the protestors, who seemed determined to stay the night in Cairo’s central square. Tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets were employed. At the same time, it could well be interpreted as reasonable efforts to preserve public order. Not that the protestors threatened violence, but that the government was keen to stop the event as carefully as possible, yet stop it all the same.

Today began very quietly. Early efforts to protest fizzled against opposition, but on a day to return to work, the numbers did not seem grand. Whereas the day before I wondered if my posted analysis would be rendered foolish very quickly, by the afternoon it seemed the efforts at demonstration represented an attempt to force the issue, to keep alive a fading spirit.

Yesterday afternoon Julie and I took the girls out to go shopping and for a bit of a walk. We live in a nice neighborhood in Maadi, which is certainly an upper class neighborhood by all standards. But we live not far from where the area blends into a lower class section, which is where Julie often shops at lower prices than if she walks in the opposite direction. As thousands of people were rallying downtown, we enjoyed a normal stroll in the busy streets, the same scenario played out day after day. There were no rumblings of protest, no efforts to stir trouble. It confirmed my thoughts further that this social media revolution might largely be akin to a spoiled teenager railing against a dysfunctional family. The issues are surely serious, but the stakes are not so large.

Further confirmation came with a phone call to the Upper Egyptian city of Maghagha, where we had visited for a few days. We enjoyed time again with our priest-family friends there, and will write about this soon. But in this sleepy, poorer town three hours south of Cairo, there were no demonstrations whatsoever. Most protests have been in Cairo and Alexandria; certainly there are many desperately poor people here, but it is also home to the middle class. Protests elsewhere have been in a Mediterranean costal city known as a labor stronghold, and in the Sinai where there are longstanding issues with the Bedouin. Much of Upper Egypt was quiet, which was not the case during recent legislative elections, when protest demonstrations against alleged electoral corruption were widespread.

Finally, more confirmation came in a visit to the area of Kozzika, which is a poorer neighborhood to the south of Maadi where I go twice weekly for my class in a Coptic Orthodox institute. Again, no signs of anger, trouble, or concern with the world. A local coffee shop had al-Jazeera broadcasting live coverage of an emerging protest in downtown Cairo, and no one paid any attention, as domino tiles slammed down against the table.

But after a few hours away from the computer and Twitter addictions, I came home to survey the news. Protests, it seems, are gaining steam as the night goes on. Security repression seems rather severe, but the result perhaps is to spur on more people to join in. As you follow the news you can get wrapped up in it – here is an especially chilling audio link from a foreign British journalist who was rounded up in the back of a police truck with dozens of protestors. It makes it seems as if the world is on fire.

Perhaps it is – there. Not here. In all I am about 12 kilometers away from what is happening. It might as well be worlds apart. Those there have such passion and fury from their cause in the moment; those here are sleeping peacefully, including my three young daughters. Do I wish to be there? Not really, exciting as it would be. Am I content here? Not quite. Egypt could be changing, or it could be a blip on the screen. Either way, I am disconnected, and the feeling of disconnection is fueled by the constant surveying of others’ passion and fury. Is it true? Is it widespread? Is it good?

Still, it is smaller than yesterday. Will tomorrow be smaller still? It is said that Egyptians are not revolutionary by character. Until about 60 years ago, the nation had been ruled by foreigners since the days of Alexander the Great. They move along in life, deal with economic realities, and do not rock the boat. Yesterday and today, they are trying to. Some, that is. Thousands, actually. Will it make a difference against a resolute government? A government backed by American support?

But, on the other hand, even thousands are but a drop in the bucket. In their non-participation, do the majority of Egyptians signal content relative enough to prove this is not an internal rumbling for democracy, but rather the pining of a frustrated middle class earning to imitate Tunisia and, however legitimately, increase its sphere of freedoms? The government does not do a great job of eradicating poverty, but it heavily subsidizes basic goods. Are the majority of the poor content enough along their historical pattern, unconcerned by exclusion from political life? Will the protests eventually fizzle as the middle class aspirations are beaten down?

By and large, these have been secular protests, and notably, Egypt is a religious society. I would like to explore this question further tomorrow, if possible, but the call is circulating on Twitter that protestors are regrouping, and calling for nationwide participation following Friday prayers. Will Egyptians emerge from the mosque and take to the streets? This is looking like the next big question, unless tomorrow has more surprises. But will the population rally around a non-religious cause? It remains to be seen.

So what is my take, after all of this? It is best to hold judgment. I would encourage all to pray. The president needs wisdom, as do advisors, police chiefs, and protestors. There are deaths and injuries, and these cannot please God. Yet there are aspirations and hopes, and perhaps these do. May he sift the chaff from the wheat and bring about a society pleasing to all. Far less importantly, may he also give armchair observers sitting in Maadi the ability to be as constructive as possible.

Current Events Personal

Police Day Palpitations

Last year Egypt added a 16th day – Police Day – to its official list of public holidays. It may prove that this designation will backfire on the government.

The day was created to honor the memory of fifty police officers murdered by the British in 1952, which provoked an uprising eventually leading to the Free Officer’s Revolution and establishment of the modern Egyptian Republic. Since then, however, the police have been a primary object of contempt for opposition figures and the general man on the street, who consider them the enforcers of the Emergency Law, by which, it is said, the government squelches all opposition. Others say the Emergency Law is necessary to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, such as government supporters and members of the National Democratic Party. They believe the police allow the people to sleep soundly at night. Many Egyptian Christians, meanwhile, find the police and security forces to be biased and unresponsive when aggression is directed at their community or churches. Regardless of religion, though, the complaint of random arrests and brutality is circulated widely.

Inspired by the recent uprising in Tunisia, and frustrated by what were understood as deeply fraudulent legislative elections, Egyptian opposition figures have chosen to launch nationwide protests on the occasion of Police Day. The reverse symbolism is poignant – demonstrators will demand the repeal of the Emergency Law and the dismissal of the Interior Minister. Additionally, they call for a rise in the minimum wage and terms limits on the presidency. Activists hope that, as seen in Tunisia, initial protests for limited concessions might lead to a wholesale rejection of the regime.

Will they succeed? Over 80,000 Egyptian Facebook users have pledged to participate. So have leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organized opposition party in Egypt. They will be joined by the Wafd, Karama, and Ghad parties, the movements of April 6 and the National Association for Change, as well as representatives of the labor movement. Reluctant presidential hopeful Muhammad al-Baradei has signaled his approval of the protest, but will not participate.

Trepidation is understandable. The government has announced the demonstration to be illegal, and will deal strictly, though within the law, against any violators. At least three activists have already been arrested for promoting the campaign. Fresh in the minds of any protestor will be the recent deaths in police custody of Khalid Sa’eed, accused of drug dealing but purported to have informed against police corruption in drug deals, and Sayyid Bilal, an Alexandrian Salafi rounded up after the church bombing on New Year’s Eve. Investigations into their deaths are ongoing.

Other objections are raised. The Tagammu Party rejects the protests on the grounds that the nation’s policemen deserve a day of honor. Meanwhile, the ruling National Democratic Party has announced its intention to hold a counter demonstration of loyalty to President Mubarak, in which half a million of its younger members will participate. Additionally, the heads of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches in Egypt have urged their members not to join the protests, but instead to devote the day to prayer asking God to bless Egypt.

The weight and immediacy of the protest is in the air, especially in light of the events in Tunisia. One friend, an older gentleman, believes that nothing substantial will happen, though some may try to force the issue. He said this, however, on his way back from the bank, where he withdrew money ‘just in case’. Another friend spoke of the protest by listing a litany of common Egyptian complaints about the government. A sensible journalist, he spoke with a passion which betrayed his normal demeanor. Yet he has a wife and children, a reasonable income, and much to lose. Even so, he was itching to participate for the benefit of his country. Wisdom is necessary.

Yet where should wisdom lead? Certain factors suggest that a Tunisian style uprising is not imminent. First of all, the Tunisian demonstrations were by all appearances spontaneous developments arising from a disenfranchised lower class. Efforts at imitation in Egypt, however, are led by political elites looking to move the masses. Perhaps they will succeed; public frustration with government is widespread. More likely, however, is though the social media dissemination of dissent is spontaneous among the upper class, it will fail to mobilize greater society to any substantial degree.

Second of all, when the Tunisian demonstrations began to gain steam, they were joined by the middle class, which transformed an originally economic protest into one fully political. Critical mass was reached, and the president fled. Here, however, the middle class will be asked to lead, not support. Their cause is political, not economic. Though certainly the poor in Egypt could stand a drastic improvement in their condition – far more than in Tunisia – will they follow the comparatively rich into an unknown future, for political freedoms that do not generally concern them anyway? Can the family man mentioned above command their allegiance? Will he even be willing to try?

In which light, then, should the decision of the church to abstain from protest be understood? Church leadership is also frustrated with the government, especially following the use of live ammunition on Coptic protesters in Umraniyya, a suburb of Cairo. The Alexandria attack, however, may have served as a reminder that church security is tied to good, secure governance. Perhaps a known stability is preferable to a chaotic, unknown future.

The government can also be seen as solidifying its relationship with the church following the Alexandria bombing. The prime suspect in the Nag Hamadi Christmas killings from last year was recently sentenced to death – the first such sentence rendered against a sectarian criminal in modern Egyptian history. Furthermore, the government has stated that a new law to govern the contentious issue of church building will be introduced soon. For its part, the church has rejected the efforts of the US Congress to conduct a special hearing on the Alexandria attack as interference in domestic affairs – exactly the same language used by the government. The church’s longstanding position is that Coptic affairs are a matter of concern to Egypt only, interpreting even sincere international efforts at assistance as detrimental to the national unity between one people of two religions.

It can also be said that the Bible itself is an anti-revolutionary document. Many verses encourage believers to submit to the king, whether he is just or unjust. While undercurrents of protest exist in Biblical interpretation, the Egyptian church perspective is well within the mainstream of historical Christian understanding. It may well be within the mainstream of wisdom as well, but this is a pragmatic, political matter. Should the church throw its hat in with the uprising? Where will the repercussions be greatest should the effort fail, or succeed?

Fr. Matta al-Miskeen represents a minority position in the church today, but one that has been forged by an intense monastic spirituality. In his book ‘Church and State’, he urges Christians to become full participants in the life of society, and devote themselves spiritually in the life of the church. A mixing of the two identities, however, pollutes the two streams in which Jesus said to ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar, and the things that are God’s, to God’. Though now deceased, he recognized the increasing politicization of the church, and warned against it.

As things stand now, the church is tied to the ruling political establishment, no matter how frustrated it is in this relationship. Alliance with government makes proper sense; after all, having suffered through sectarian and terrorist attacks over the past three decades, it is only the ruling power that controls the forces of security. Witnessing great police commitment to defend the sanctity of churches during Christmas Eve services testifies to this fact.

Yet Matta al-Miskeen hints at the greater strategy. If the church is apolitical, then individual Christians can be as political as they desire. The government can trust the church not to mobilize its members, either for or against government policy. Society, including the Muslim majority, can trust the church to urge its adherents toward morality and cooperation. Then, if a Christian becomes a government loyalist, he is free. If a Christian takes opposition leadership and calls for regime change, he is free. For his actions he is responsible to God, as well as the state and society. Yet this responsibility is his, it does not belong to the church. The church is responsible for nurturing the spiritual life of believers, not securing their political rights.

Police Day is January 25. Tension is afoot. Different strata of society have chosen sides, and the church has declared its allegiance. Perhaps the day will pass insignificantly; perhaps this is the first step towards Tunisia. Will society follow the lead of the elitist agitators, no matter how deep their dissatisfaction with government? Will Christians follow the lead of the church, and continue their submission to the ruling powers? For all involved, where does wisdom lie?

For the good of Egypt, may the right answers become clear. May all have the courage of conviction and the goodness of heart to act on such wisdom.