And the politicians throwing stones singing ashes, ashes all fall down

It almost did not seem possible, but indeed Egypt has a new constitution. It is no doubt deeply flawed. It fails to protect minority rights, leaves many questions about the role of women, privileges Islam and Shuria law and fails to dislodge the state within a state status of the military. The latter is extremely concerning, as the Minister of Defense will be chosen not by the President but by the military, and there is no true civilian oversight of the military budget.

The 2nd round of voting was held on December 22nd, and we were what seemed like an eternity away from Cairo in the Siwa Oasis, about a 10 hour drive from Cairo, and only 40 kilometers from Libya. Though Cairo and other governates voted the week before, Siwans voted on the 22nd, and our very informal survey of residents suggested overwhelming support for the new constitution. Though our affluent neighborhood of Maadi voted over 60% against the constitution, this was not the case in Siwa. The man selling the freshest, hottest, cheapest, greasiest and best falafel that I have had has told us that everybody in Siwa, “even the children” will vote to support the constitution. Some expressed support simply because they wanted to get this stage of the painful birth of democracy over, others because they truly embraced the thrust of this constitution.

To say that Siwa is conservative does not begin to capture this magical place. Though all Siwians speak Arabic, they also have their own oral language. The culture shares much with Tangiers in Morocco. Nearly all the men wear gallabayas and married women are totally covered, without even the opening for the eyes as the Salafists have. Once married, women rarely leave the home. Much of the building material of the Oasis is mud. There is rubble everywhere, and I am still trying to reconcile Leah’s apt observation that the place looked like it was bombed with our shared observation that it was one of the most beautiful places on earth. Date and olive trees are nearly everywhere and these two crops seem to sustain much of the local economy. Tourism, like everywhere we have visited across this vast land, is down.

Noah stayed up all night before our drive to Siwa, so he wore pajamas the whole way.

Noah stayed up all night before our drive to Siwa, so he wore pajamas the whole way.

Perhaps the biggest adventure of this trip was our night in the Libyan Desert. Accompanied by our intrepid guide Aloush, we left our house in Siwa at about 10 am. He and our host Penny commented that the clouds and wind were incredibly unusual. We set out and had a wonderful ride through the largest sand dunes I had ever seen. We enjoyed lunch overlooking a lake, and then set for a ride through the desert. Because the desert is ever changing, Aloush would climb the dunes and then stop at the top, peering over to make sure the downhill was safe. Imagine a natural roller coaster. Leah and Noah took to sand boarding quickly, though the climb back up the dune was more difficult than we had imagined.

Noah and Leah sand boarding.

Noah and Leah sand boarding.

After finding shells and sand dollars across the desert floor, the wind continued to pick up as the sun began to set. “This is not a good night for camping,” Aloush shared with me as he gently dropped sand from his hand to measure the wind. In retrospect, I think he was saying maybe we should head back to town. As we unloaded the blankets, mats, sleeping bags and food from  his Toyota Land Cruiser, it began to rain, the first time Aloush had seen rain in the desert in his 17 years of taking people camping. We loaded things back in to the car so they would not get wet, he amazingly lit a fire and cooked a delicious chicken stew with potatoes and zucchini. He abandoned the idea of grilling the chicken as he said it would be full of sand. We ate, set up the sleeping bags, and settled in for a most uncomfortable night under the clouds in the midst of swirling sand that I am days later still finding in my ears. Indeed, the sun could not come quickly enough, as we packed up and abandoned the idea of making breakfast as it was bitterly cold and windy.    We returned to Siwa village where we showered, shook out the sand, and chalked yet another set of events up to memory.

Leah, Noah and Judy wrap their heads to protect their faces from the blowing wind.

Leah, Noah and Judy wrap their heads to protect their faces from the blowing wind.

Leah with our guide, chef and protector Aloush

Leah with our guide, chef and protector Aloush

We rented a villa in Siwa, built in the traditional mud style of houses in the village. We cooked breakfast in the morning, and I enjoyed going out early to buy eggs, oranges, hot bread and one morning even strawberries. Donkey carts were ubiquitous, though I was told that increasingly the tuk-tuks we saw were becoming increasingly menacing in the town square. This town was only connected to the rest of Egypt by a road in 1986, and did not have electricity  24 hours  a day until the 1990s. The cafes seems to be open early, with men (only men) sipping tea and smoking shisha. A climb to the top of the Shali yielded a wonderful view of the town, the palm trees growing in the Oasis, and the desert dunes just miles beyond.  Even though December and the temperatures were mild, when the sun shone brightly I was reminded we were in the desert.

viwe of siwa

Siwa has an abundance of wonderful historical sites to see, largely empty, no hassles, no tickets, just history. As we began our 10 hour drive back to Cairo, I was reminded that we  have over the course of our time here in Egypt and Jordan and Lebanon toured ruins, tombs, pyramids, museums, catacombs, grottos, caves, monuments, mosques, churches, monasteries, synagogues, villages, treasuries, oracles, citadels, libraries and palaces. One cannot help but be reminded of the vast and slow pace of history, of the rise and fall of leaders and religions and beliefs and practices.  As we have been witnesses to intense and sometimes violent political debate over these last five months, this backdrop provides at least a temporary reprieve, a reality check if you will on the winds of historical forces.  I do not say this to at all lessen the intensity or importance of the Arab Awakening that we have witnessed here over the last five months, not at all.   But the historical backdrop that we have seen does make me take pause to think.

A street sign in siwa

A street sign in Siwa

As we drove back in to Cairo last night I noticed that the few protesters who had been in front of the Constitutional Court here in Maadi since November 22 had left their tents. After Morsi’s controversial decree on the 22nd, his supporters gathered here in order to prevent the Court from meeting and threatening the planned constitutional referendum.  Though there were initially thousands who blocked the entrance and camped out, I had noticed each time we drove down the Corniche to downtown that the numbers had been dwindling.  Now that the vote was over, the last stalwarts had gone home. Egypt has a new constitution. Its place in history will be determined by what the politicians do with it, as is true of all constitutions.  And no matter what your view of  how good or bad it is, history will no doubt take note of the lively and rancorous and public discussion and debate that has been a constant of our time here, and will I sense be a constant here for some time to come.  I cannot help but think that this is a good thing. Not easy, but good.  For now at least.


The northern sky it stinks with greed you can smell it for miles around

I had just finished grading final papers and exams and submitted my grades to the AUC registrar when I went to Yahoo news and saw that Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi has been named a runner-up for the Time Magazine person of the year.  Looks like the other Muslim President won it this year.  I had quietly been hoping Morsi would get it but was glad to see that he got the important recognition he did.

Like all campuses at this time of year, it is quiet here. The emails have slowed, the appointments dwindled, and the lines at various campus eateries disappeared.  I went to my favorite place on campus today, Beirut Express, for my typical two falafel sandwiches and Diet Pepsi.  They were out of falafel, so I had egg sandwiches with french fries and salad and a regular Coke since they were out of Diet Pepsi. Can’t say I loved it, but it did fill me up.  I told the friendly man behind the counter that this was my last day on campus.  He asked for clarity. “You will not come back. And what about your daughter.” I said no, not for a while, and he said “Sir, I will miss you so much.” Right back at you my friend, who even though he came to know my order gave me the wrong thing nearly every time, and always gave me a break when I did not have the right change.  I will miss you too.

AUC as the semester ends

AUC as the semester ends

I am not sure how big a story it will be here that Morsi was a runner-up.  He has lost so much support in the time that we have been here.  I spoke the other evening with a man who has been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood for 25 years, who knows Morsi personally and had been a very eager supporter.  He was disenchanted and disappointed that the Brotherhood had called on its members to surround the Presidential Palace over two weeks ago in order to protect it from protesters.  He felt that the nine deaths that resulted from this conflict were the President’s responsibility.  Still another colleague here who teaches at AUC and also runs an important NGO, who had shared with me months ago that we needed to give Morsi a chance, had lost all confidence in the President because of his all of his missteps and miscalculations.  I am not sure if people have judged this to be a result of incompetence, which is not unusual when repressed political forces take power, or the result of a real power grab by Islamist forces.  I am not sure either, but I too share the concerns of my colleagues about the course of this government.

As I write, colleagues are stopping by my office to wish me farewell.  I am deeply impressed by the important and relevant work of the Gerhart Center and its role in the Arab Awakening (I am told that spring is not a pleasant season here so I am now call it the Awakening).  The birth of democracy here has led to the closing of the downtown Tahrir campus which has disrupted many of Center’s programs, the rescheduling of some finals because of the national holiday declared because of the constitutional referendum, even worse than usual traffic because of constant protests and a general sense of unpredictability. But my colleagues here carry on, knowing that their work has always been important, but now certainly more important than ever.

I have so much to say about our time here, but I want to gather my thoughts a little more.  For now, I close up this office, which has a Koran on the shelf above me, and head home on the bus.  The trip might be an hour, might be 2, depending on traffic.  We leave for the Siwa Oasis on the 21st, and then back in the U.S. late New Years eve, where we sill trade the smell of burning plastic for the smell of North Carolina.  I have always been convinced that smell is the most nostalgic of senses, and have already I will be happy to share with you pictures and stories when I see you, but how will I share the smell?



A mutual toast with our Arabic teacher Mr. Mohmen as we finish dinner at his home and I present him with a DukeEngage t-shirt

Some folks trust to reason, others trust to might

Last night Judy was pretty comfortable sitting on the sofa with her glass of red wine catching up on Homeland on the Ipad so when I said at 8:30 let’s go downtown because it was the eve of the first round of voting on the constitution, she was hesitant.  We had just had three men to the house who were looking at things that we are going to sell before coming home. It turns out that they have a little business buying and then selling things that expats get rid of upon their return home. Though I am the political one, Judy is the direct one and asked how they would be voting tomorrow.  Two against the constitution, one for it.  They offered to buy some of our alcohol and ibuprofen, and though we were not yet ready to part with these, I did offer them a drink.  One took Arak with me, one vodka and orange juice. They gave us a down payment for the toaster oven and washer and dryer and agreed to pick up the items on December 30th.  And with that interaction I think I convinced Judy that going out and talking to people on this night was better than settling in to the sofa. So we got on the subway and headed to Tahrir.

The first round of voting on Egypt’s new constitution is today Saturday, with a recently added second round to be held on Saturday the 22nd. The constitution itself and the process behind its drafting have deeply polarized political forces here, and at times the Byck-Mlyn family, who has been heard to raise voices over dinner and early morning and late night conversations that have invoked questions and passion.

The anti constitution forces, made up of mostly liberals, secularists and former regime supporters announced on Wednesday that they urge the opposition to vote no rather than boycott the voting as they had been contemplating. Even with this agreement, the opposition to the regime remains fragmented and leaderless, which only in part explains why the they do not currently hold power and a large majority of Egyptians are very likely to vote yes on the constitution.

Yesterday afternoon, on our way back from a picnic in the Wadi Degla we came across a small protest in the rotary just two blocks from our house, with liberals urging a no vote. There are multiple protests across the country today, though the epicenter of the protests seems to have shifted from Tahrir to the Presidential Palace outside the center of town. This is I think symbolic that these are no longer protests of hope and aspiration but instead of fear and polarization, of stopping something rather than starting it. This is much of what I talked about with my class when we reviewed the constitution on the last day of class..

class photo

I have had troubling conversations with people we have met, many secular women, who fear that Egypt will soon become a place deeply inhospitable to women, non-Muslims and foreigners. I did a double take the other day when over lunch a young who represents a prominent foundation told me that President Morsi will become worse than Hitler. A former colleague was convinced that the lack of cell phone service many of us were experiencing days ago was a conspiracy by the government to limit communications.  And somebody Judy struck up a conversation with last week was convinced that the current strife in Egypt was all due to a conspiracy by the United States to support the Muslim Brotherhood as a way of balancing Shiite power in the region, sounding more like the famous realist Hans Morganthau than Morganthau himself. Finally, an acquaintance who is a Copt and comes from an accomplished family is urging her children to leave Egypt and stay in Europe as this place will only get worse.  Hitler. Iran. Saudi Arabia.  There is such a palpable sense of fear, one that I think is extreme and runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And there was the very thoughtful conversation that Judy and I had with our Arabic teacher Mohmen and his wife ShuShu.  He has been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood for 25 years.  Despite his clear support for “Dr. Mohammed Morsi,” whom he knows personally, he is deeply critical of his fellow brothers who surrounded the Palace last week in order to protect it, arguing to us that is not the job for people but for the Army. He also felt that President Morsi was to be directly blamed for the deaths that resulted from the protests last week.  But when it got to a conversation about the opposition, especially Mohamed Al -Baradi, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and now the perhaps de-facto head of the opposition, he said Al Baradi was not for Egypt, but was doing the bidding of the United States.  When I suggested that perhaps Al-Baradi was not against Egypt but might have a different idea of what would be good for the country, Mohmen would have none of that. Though I think this is overstated, I do think that Al-Baradi’s actions and rhetoric, refusing dialogue while predicting dire outcomes, has only inflamed and exacerbated current tensions.

And I guess that one of the most interesting things that I heard from people on all sides of the debate is a uniform belief that somehow the United States is behind everything and deserves much of the blame for the current strife.  And this comes from all sides – both the liberal and Mubarak supporters who are now united as the opposition, and the Muslim Brotherhood, as cited above. That is no small feat to be blamed by everybody with different conspiracy theories blaming the United States for doing different things!  To the extent that I think U.S. policy is incoherent here and should support basic democratic trends and institutions without getting close to any single faction and party, the appearance  of incoherence is probably apt.

A poster last night in Tahrir

A poster last night in Tahrir

After talking to people in Tahrir, Judy and I got lost headed to the bar El Harreya (Freedom) to meet our friend Gillian for a beer.  Leah hangs out at Harreya a lot, and took me and my friend Kenny there the other night.  It is 120 years old, crusty around the edges, and a lovely mixture of expats and Egyptians. We sat at a table with two young professionals who told us about all of the travel that we had not done, and advised about how cold it would be when we visit the western desert of Siwa next week.

As the night wore on, we met a number of people, both clientele and waiters, who knew Leah, with one waiter going up to Judy and asking if she was Leah’s mother.  Ah, infamy.  Also, I asked our table mates if they were going to vote tomorrow, and they said indeed they would be voting no on the referendum.  They had hope for Morsi, but felt that he was not listening and no longer spoke for all of Egypt.  I felt and shared their disappointment, the replacement of the euphoria of January 2011 with the reality December 2012.  They had no hope in any of the national figures claiming to speak for the country.  One of the men even wished that Mubarak would come back, because under his regime things were safe and stable.  This was the first time that I had heard a direct lament for the good old days, but it silenced me.  I could understand why he would want this, but it saddened me. We exchanged phone numbers as we shook hands, thanking each other for the good dialogue we had shared. We agreed to meet and talk again, insha’allah.

Judy enjoys a Stella at Harreya.

Judy enjoys a Stella at Harreya.

We walked out into late night Cairo, with the streets still filled with men sipping tea, smoking shesha and stopping for a quick shwarma or falafel.  I recently read of the term “Arab Spring Tourist” describing those who come here to observe from a distance and then go home.  I am starting to feel like this may apply to me, as we begin to sell our belongings and leave this fragile democracy to sort things out.  I do not of course have the hubris to think that my presence here makes a difference, or that this is my fight.  But damn it is sometimes tempting.

PS: With my thanks to my fiend Bill Deegan for the title of this blog and for his barrage of texts and emails suggesting various Dead lyrics for titles.  He has put a lot of time into this and for that I wonder about his sanity and I thank him,

Nothin shakin on shakedown street,used to be the heart of town.

We had not been to Tahrir for a while. There has been what seems like an endless series of protests, starting about three weeks ago with the anniversary of the death of 47 protesters on Mohamed Mahmud Street one year ago, followed by protests over the war in Gaza, followed by outrage over the President Morsi’s decree that consolidated executive power, followed now in protests over the proposed constitution.  It’s kind of hard to keep track.  My old friend Kenny is visiting from the states, and he really wanted to see Tahrir on his first day in Egypt. We also wanted to share with him koshary, the uniquely Egyptian meal, made of pasta, rice, lentils, chick peas, tomato sauce and fried onions. Our favorite koshary temple is Abu Tarek, a place we had not visited since our first night in Cairo nearly four months ago.

Judy was a bit reluctant to go to Tahrir, so I proposed that we take the metro to Sadat, the stop closest to the iconic square. We would check it out, look around, and not hang around if it felt dangerous or out of control. As we climbed the street, with the Egyptian Museum and Intercontinental Hotel hovering around us, Judy insisted that she smelt or felt tear gas, I was less sure.  There were maybe 5,000 people in the square, maybe 100 hundred tents in the center sheltering those who were in for the long haul, either insisting that President Morsi rescind his constitutional decree or even resign. Neither of these demands is going to be met.

The scene was like the North Carolina State Fair, or as some of you probably expect I am going to say next, like the parking lot, or “Shakedown Street,” of a Grateful Dead concert.  Most people were milling about, and there were a lot of vendors selling tea, koshary, cigarettes, pretzels and popcorn.  There were pockets of mainly young men in circles, energetically chanting protests about something. Some were painting there face with the Egyptian flag, and one vendor offered to pain mine, which I did not think was a good idea as it is probably best not to “take sides” in what seems to have become a culture of protest and opposition.  And it certainly was not the same Tahrir that I had seen weeks ago, as the entrance to Mohamed Mahmoud street was blocked with barbed wire, so we were not able to see the latest round of graffiti on the street or enter the old campus of the American University of Cairo, which has now been closed for three weeks because of the latest round of protests. The campus has received a few Molotov cocktails that have been thrown over its walls and withstood some damage to its buildings.

I had two feelings as we walked around for 30 minutes.  The first was that we were indeed witnessing history, watching people embrace the right and thrill of protest, something that had been dangerous during the 30 years of President Hosni Mubarak. I was reminded at a very gut level of the profound importance of freedom of speech and assembly. Also, I felt that on this particular night, which had not been called a major night of protest, that this routine has become so regularized that it had taken on a much different meaning than it had on those historic days that began in January 2011. It was of course still full of meaning, still an expression of previously inexpressible sentiments, but it was less urgent, less specific, and without the near unanimity that had led to the remarkable ouster of Mubarak in 18 days almost two years ago.  I think history will not grant this kind of dramatic change so quickly again. In that sense, the seemingly “easy” removal of Mubarak may have created unrealizable expectations for the scope and pace of political change here, and maybe in other parts of the Middle East as well. (For this latter point, I watch with deep sadness and horror the destruction of Syria, which began with street protests where many probably felt this was going to be easy. Oh my god were they wrong.)

As we left the square and made our way to the koshary temple of Abu Tarek (it is to me the Carnegie Deli of Cairo), most of the men sitting sipping tea and smoking sheesha were glued to the television.  President Morsi was delivering a speech to the Constituent Assembly, the body that had a day before hurriedly finished its drafting of a new national constitution. The move toward the finish line had been accelerated because of the fear the equivalent of Egypt’s Supreme Court was about to invalidate the entire drafting process. Though it had been meeting for over six months, the work of the assembly has been called into question as most women, liberals, Christians and secularists that were part of the body had resigned in the face of their own perception that Islamists were dominating the deliberations.  In his speech, Morsi announced that the constitution would be put to a public referendum on Saturday, December 15th. Election day is not far off.

My class will be talking about the constitution on Wednesday of this week, and I am making my way through it now. I will write more about it later I hope.  But for now, the country is likely to experience two weeks of debate, protest, civil disobedience, charges and counter charges, campaigning, conspiracy theories, rumors of impending doom and even civil war, dislocation, even worse traffic and emails from home urging us to leave this laboratory of democracy.  But I realize that for me, as a lapsed political scientist, this is somewhat akin to being a crack addict in a crack house. I receive my political fix at almost every moment, and the next two weeks promise to flood the streets with more.

We found our way to Abu Tarek, which was empty compared to the first time we were there.  We climbed to the second floor of the three floor restaurant, and ordered from the waiter.  There are not really many choices to make, only koshary or koshary “special” (the latter has extra chick peas, tomato sauce and fried onions). We all ordered the special, Judy and I indulged with a 7-Up, and Kenny ordered just a water. Kenny, who loves food more than almost anybody I know, was not quite as taken with the carbohydrate orgy as Judy and me. Being the good guest that he is, he finished his plate, while overhead President Morsi finished his speech, launching yet another round in the painful (aren’t they all?) birth of Egyptian democracy.

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