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..
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.
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.
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,