Greetings from Tahrir Square. We spent much of yesterday morning walking along and across the Nile river, beginning in the tree lined quiet of the Zamalek neighborhood, and finishing in Tarhir Square. The square itself looks more like a field after a really good Grateful Dead concert than the epicenter of a revolution. It exudes a feeling of protest fatigue.
Politics are at or near the surface of so many of our conversations here. There are those places that you go in the world where events are always described as before of after. Sometimes these are the result of a natural disaster, say in New Orleans after Katrina or Haiti after the earthquake. In those place, not only does history seem to get divided by these natural disasters, but also people want to tell you – in many cases need to tell you – where they were when it happened. Here in Egypt, people talk about before the revolution and after the revolution, not only to perhaps tell you something about their lives but also to explain how things are. Everything from petty crime to the amount of trash in the streets is linked to the revolution in some way. I am reminded though that history unfolds with or without cataclysmic events, and we are here as it continues to unfold, albeit slowly.
People of course have very strong feelings about what happened here over those 18 days. A coup, a revolution, a transfer of power? Most cab drivers do point out to us where Mubarak was hospitalized, and I could not help but notice that yesterday our cab driver referred to him as President Hosni Mubarak, suggesting perhaps some reverence for the man who led this country for thirty years. There are plaques that remain posted both at the new campus of the American University of Cairo and the Marriott hotel that honor him. The course of the revolution, which is indeed what most people call what happened here, will determine what happens to those plaques, just as Iraqis decided what to do with statues of Saddam Hussein or the people of Eastern Europe and the former USSR decided what to do with the statues of so many of their leaders. I can’t help but think that these are very important decisions for these societies in transition.
A women we met who runs the Community Service Association here, a center in our neighborhood that is designed to allow ex-pats to feel as if they have never left home by providing excellent lattes and spinning classes told me and Judy that of course everybody knows that Shafiq (Mubarak’s last prime minister and the Presidential candidate who most represented continuity with the past)really got more votes than Morsi, but that the military knew that a Shafiq victory would lead to riots in the streets so Morsi was given the presidency. To me, a highly unlikely scenario, but so interesting from a person who clearly misses the status quo and needs an explanation for its disappearance. And the family we met while smoking sheesha overlooking the Mediterranean on our weekend in Alexandria not only expressed to us their support for Obama, but their hope and at least open mindedness for President Morsi.
It is a bit odd for me to be here during the political conventions. I remember so well when I attended the 1980 Democratic Convention in New York City when Jimmy Carter was nominated for a second time. Ted Kennedy gave the speech of his lifetime at the convention reminding us that “the dream endures.” It was too little too late for him, but it rocked Madison Square Garden almost as much as Phil Lesh’s bass. So I have not watched all of the speeches but have read accounts of them, and saw some of each. It did make me think of the disappointment so many feel about Obama, a man who promised change and has delivered only some. The parallels to politics here are also important. The hopes of those who risked and gave their lives in Tahrir and who believed in what might be called liberal reform are not close to being realized here. In a sense, the revolution was taken over by more religious forces, who though were not at the forefront of the revolution were the best organized to benefit from it. Where they take Egypt still is the most important question that remains from the revolution, and I am honored to be able to watch this slowly evolve. I am reminded, both for the US and Egypt, that history is very slow, that the forces for inertia are powerful, and that change can take forever.
My family and I had of course been warned that post-revolution Cairo was not a safe place, and I do not want to jinx the safety and comfort that we have enjoyed since our arrival here nearly 3 weeks ago. Judy and Leah have not been harassed in the streets, at least not any more than Leah experiences in NY. Instead, men who sit on the side of the road are likely to say hello or welcome to Egypt. We have not been pick-pocketed or groped on Africa’s only subway, but instead been offered directions, chicklets and seats on very crowded trains. We have not been taken for a ride or ripped off by cab drivers, but instead been welcomed and given tours in broken english of important landmarks. And we have not yet gotten sick from the food, even after Judy and enjoyed falaffel, shwarma and fava beans at a gritty take out place downtown. May this all continue, as we say, inshallah.