My Tahrir experience last night

I spent yesterday evening in Tahrir square, which meant that I missed the attack on the Israeli embassy that has dominated the news from Cairo. Colleagues on their way back from the pyramids got caught in a pitched battle betweeen rock-throwers and riot police in front of the Saudi embassy, down the street from the Israelis. They got a good scare, but were uninjured.

My own contact with the would-be rock throwers was limited to their recruiting marches through Tahrir, where most people were ignoring the chants of “to the embassy!”  sung out by fist-pumping small groups of young men.  But they apparently managed to assemble thousands at the embassy, some of whom were surely what would be termed football hooligans in Europe.  The arrival of Ahli and Zamalek (the two Cairo teams) fans in Tahrir was greeted earlier in the evening with a roar of approval.

The predominant themes in Tahrir however had little to do with Israel.  A big sign denounced the media cronies of the Mubarak regime, all still in their jobs.  Another called for justice for those who had resisted the revolution, noting that they are not even arrested but pro-democracy demonstrators are still being processed in military courts.

Anti-military sentiment tinged the speeches, which called on Egyptians to be like one hand, a civilian one.  The crowd wanted the army to fulfill its promise to turn over power to civilians.  “Liberty, social justice and bread” was a popular chant–it sounds a lot more rhythmic in Arabic.  The atmosphere is a bit like Hyde Park:  anyone with a microphone stands on a soap box, quickly assembles a crowd and holds forth, to the amusement and banter of the listeners, who denounce him for hogging the mic.  The Communist Party was handing out leaflets that denounced human rights violations by the military and called for liberation from everything, including bachelorhood.

Women were less than a quarter of Tahrir’s population last night, many but not all covering at least their hair.  “The one who governs shoud be bigger in wisdom than beard” was a popular, I am told Koranic, quotation.  But neither religion nor secularism was on serious display so far I could tell.

If there was any link between the general sentiment of the crowd and the violence at the Israeli embassy, it may lay in the idea of humiliation.  “Keep your head up, you are Egyptian” was a strong current in the speeches.  Egyptians regard the Israeli killing of several Egyptian policemen in Sinai in the aftermath of a terrorist attack inside Israel as humiliating and want a more fulsome apology for it.  As Rob Satloff suggests, “a more generous statement on the unfortunate killing of Egyptian security forces might have been
both appropriate and helpful.”

That would not likely have carried much weight with last night’s rioters, who destroyed a security wall built recently in front of the embassy and injured a lot of people.  But it is only by making the “cold peace” between Israel and Egypt a warmer one that politicians on both sides of the Sinai border will be able to convince their electorates that the Camp David accords are worth defending.

This is the real meaning of the Arab spring to Israel, as Satloff also notes:  peace is no longer an issue that can be settled president to prime minister, or even government to government.  It will have to be society to society, which is much harder, especially if your ambassador has fled from Cairo and the Egyptian one has been withdrawn from Tel Aviv as well.

Tahrir square, last night
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8 thoughts on “My Tahrir experience last night”

  1. Should we congratulate you on coming out of it safely, or commiserate with you on missing all the excitement?

    While trying to find out just what was going on over there last night I stumbled across this article on Israeli-Egyptian relations that sounds like your people-to-people democracy and what it could achieve – it was written on the day of the attack on the embassy, but apparently before it. (There’s a facebook page where young Israelis and Egyptians congregate that he’s pushing.) Also: The Israelis demonstrating against their own government had taken cues from the Egyptians, as Egyptians proudly noted: “Signs in our [Israeli] large demonstrations proclaiming “Walk like an Egyptian” and “Rothschild, corner of Tahrir” were shown time and again in Egyptian media. ”

    Israel and Egypt need to cooperate on something big, not just not fighting, to save the pride of both of them – maybe making the Sinai bloom, building new cities to house the young men who can’t afford to get married because they can’t find a place they can afford to live. Even better if both Egyptian and Israelis lived there – who hates their own grandchildren?

    1. How much more obvious will it have to become for you to realize that cooperation with Israel is the last thing Egyptians want? The “pride” of Egypt, of which you speak, has finally surfaced for the first time since Sadat, and is evident in the recent events in Cairo; the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel will soon meet the same fate as the dictator who upheld it. So as Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank, enclose Gaza with an illegal siege, and separate the livelihood of Palestinian from their land, Egyptians will do what they see fit to end the crimes of the Zionist occupation – rest assured, they don’t need you making half-minded propositions about what you think they should do.

      P.S. This kind of blog post, and thus the comments that come with it, reveal both the futile attempts, and limitations, of any meaningful analysis rooted in “conflict studies” or a liberal approach of “understanding.” If a true understanding of the region is what you’re after, I suggest steering away from Satloff or Friedman quotes.

      1. You’re paying me too much of a compliment if your remark about “conflict studies” was directed at me – I’ve no academic background in the area. My comments were based on what I saw and what people told me when I was starting Arabic with an Arab fellow from Jenin. “At home” Arabs and Jews are constantly at each others’ throats over what he called “politics,” but in Europe (this was in Prague), they get along better with each other, or at least understand each other, better than they do with the Europeans. He was too polite to say “with Americans,” but he and his family certainly set me right about what the Wall meant back home.

        1. The academic comment was directed not at you, but at the blog as a whole.

          Of course Arabs and Jews can, and do, get along, I never said they couldn’t. But of course, as your example shows, this happens outside the political sphere. Most Arabs and Jews that do “get along” tend to take a moderate stance on the issue. Hence, the common heard response of “the people can get along just fine! It’s just the crazy extremists on both sides that are causing all the problems, and refuse to negotiate!”
          But set all the negotiations, politics, and beliefs of the “extremists” aside, and you’re left with the constant settlement building and theft of land, originating from the Israeli state apparatus as a whole.

          Pose the question of the right of return for Palestinians to an Arab and Jew who “get along” and see how long it takes for their friendship to go sour. Either the Arab has to abandon the idea that the right of return is a “right” that the Palestinians in refugee camps have, or the Israeli has to give up on the idea of a Jewish state.

          What I mean to say is of course people can “get along” – that’s not the point. But like you said: “At home” Arabs and Jews are constantly at each others’ throats over what he called “politics,” – the issue has ALWAYS been a political one, and not a religious or ‘cultural’ one, as some people like to think.

  2. I don’t think you’re qualified to tell us what the “real meaning of the Arab spring” is until you become aware that the name of the football team is Ahli- not Adly.

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