The Tantawi Multiplier

Posted November 22nd, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing
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Demonstrators and restaurant patrons listen to Field Marshal Tantawi’s national address at Cafe Riche, near Tahrir Square, on Tuesday evening. Photograph: Thanassis Cambanis

Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi’s televised offer of presidential elections sometime before July barely registered among the thousands of young Egyptians jostling to get to the front line of a fight with police that was boiling well into its fourth day. Each casualty seemed to double the number of people cramming into Mohammed Mahmoud Street, eager to charge the phalanx of riot police unleashing a literally non-stop barrage of bullets, rubber pellets, and tear gas.

Call it the Tantawi multiplier effect.

With dozens dead and thousands injured, the calls in the back alleys around Tahrir have escalated. They don’t want Tantawi’s head; they want the end of military rule, period.

“Things have only gotten worse over the last 10 months, as if Tantawi and the military council were punishing people for the revolution,” said Hadi Ismail, a 31-year-old computer programmer. He wore an argyle sweater, a blue canvas blazer, and a face mask against the tear gas. He stood with a trio of friends in a narrow lane swirling with the noxious chemical, taking a break from the battle.

“We gave the military council its power. They have forgotten that,” Hadi explained.

Less eloquently, but in flawless English his friend elaborated: “It’s the same bullshit as before. We need a material change now. No more military rule.”

So long as Tahrir remains full, and the ranks of young people willing to fight police remains undiminished, Hadi and dozens of others I interviewed believe the ruling military junta will inexorably tilt toward compromise and eventually defeat – just like Mubarak.

“All the people are willing to die,” Hadi said matter-of-factly “People are even more aware and determined than on January 28. The second wave of a revolution is always stronger and more violent.”

Out on the square, an older man with missing teeth stopped a pair of youth with tell-tale white smears on their face, traces of a yeast mix that soothes tear gas. “Protect your revolution,” he said, tears in his eyes, and not from any gas. “Save our country from those who are killing it.”

Hundreds of thousands have converged on Tahrir Square, in a manner not seen since the 18 days that felled Mubarak. This time, unlike the last, many of the dead have been paraded on stretchers through the crowd, their corpses reflecting the ghostly street-lamp light like halos.

It’s hard to square the outrage, stoked each hour by the growing body count, with the insouciant language of Egypt’s latest dictator. Tantawi, like Mubarak before him, seems to believe he is dictating terms to an unruly rabble; maybe he even believes his own claim that “invisible hands” are stoking divisions within Egypt.

The boys and girls in the square, the men and women, the unemployed and the well-to-do, express a simple disgust with the police who kill civilians, and the regime which is responsible.

“I’m not asking, I’m giving orders,” said Ahmed Fouad Saleh, himself a retired air force officer now demonstrating in Tahrir Square. “We will have a new government.”

A youth activist who helped establish a new political party earlier this year, Shady ElGhazaly Harb, shook his head in disgust, and a measure of disbelief, at the intransience of the junta that dumped Mubarak as its figurehead but seems to have retained a fair number of his ways.

“They still haven’t learned a thing,” ElGhazaly Harb said. “If they don’t leave power now, these people won’t leave the square. Nothing else will do.”

6 Key Questions on Egypt’s Escalating Violence

Posted November 22nd, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Many questions and mysteries as the military, police, and demonstrators wrangle over Egypt’s future; much too much that we don’t know, especially about who controls the police, and how the military makes decisions.

Does public opinion (or the silent majority) matter? The commentariat in Egypt and abroad places a lot of weight on the public opinion that is skeptical of protest, and always was — before January 25, during the initial uprising, and now. These voices, which are loud and important in Egypt, are apt to believe official protestations of “foreign agents,” “hidden hands,” or “secret agendas,” and quick to blame protests for destabilizing the country or hurting its economy, even if there’s no evidence to support that belief. While this view gets trotted out a lot, especially on Egyptian state television, it’s unclear whether it represents a force with any power in Egypt. This year, only a few forces have had any effect at all on politics: the army, the police, the ex-ruling party, the Islamists, and persistent street protesters. Arguably, liberal and other organized political parties have played a bit role. Note that none of these actors represents a huge swathe of society, with the exception of the Islamists. All of them have shaped events this year.

Read the whole thing at The Atlantic.

From Tahrir to Wall Street

Posted October 25th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


It was supposed to be a master class in revolutionary activism: two stars of the Tahrir Square uprising visiting Occupy Wall Street to swap tactics and sass. It ended up more like an undergraduate teach-in.

For Asmaa Mahfouz and Ahmed Maher, the visit to Zuccotti Park was an exhilarating – if surreal – break from the punishing workload of fighting the military dictatorship back home in Egypt.

“Where is the tear gas?” Maher asked with a smile, but he seemed genuinely puzzled by the cordial relations between the Wall Streeters and the cops.

Maher and Mahfouz both have been arrested before by Egypt’s notoriously abusive police, and Mahfouz recently was hauled before a military court martial for allegedly insulting her country’s military rulers.

Mahfouz had a question of her own. “Where are the organizers?” she asked. “There must be organizers.” No one knew. She ended up chatting at the welcome table with a young man wearing a straw hat.

“How do you sustain yourselves? How do you keep yourself energized?” he asked. “That’s our main problem.”

“You need a message,” she told him.

She inscribed an Egyptian flag (“From Tahrir Square to Wall Street”) with black marker and presented it to the hundreds who gathered to hear her and Maher.

Mahfouz, 26, spent years protesting when most Egyptians stayed home, and became a phenomenon with her self-produced YouTube editorials. She lambasted rulers with homespun humor, and exhorted people to join her at protests. Eventually they did, in the millions.

Maher, 31, worked with virtually every activist group in Egypt, and founded the April 6 movement, which was instrumental in organizing textile worker strikes in 2008. His grassroots political organization boasts the kind of street muscle and labor ties that Occupy Wall Street still only hopes to build.

People asked about the role of women in the Egyptian uprising, the connections between youth and labor movements, and the importance of social media. Some of the questions were well intended but astonishingly vague: “How do you overthrow a system?” one man asked. Maher politely replied, “It’s easier to overthrow a dictator than an entire system.” He didn’t belabor the point that the Egyptian revolutionaries, so far as they are concerned, have not yet won; they still are fighting their system. Egypt’s military rulers have staged a vicious campaign against Maher’s April 6 movement, accusing them with no evidence of working as American spies and subjecting them to a public inquiry.

The Americans wanted to know how they could help Egypt.

“Get your revolution done. That’s the biggest help you can give us,” Mahfouz said, expressing the hope that America would one day cut off the $1.3 billion yearly payments that sustain Egypt’s military.

She also advised Occupy Wall Street to select its own leaders and craft a simple message “that no one can change.”

On Monday evening at Zuccotti Park, Mahfouz was eager to model the fiery disobedience with which she’s inspired countless Egyptians. “Let’s march!” she said after an hour-long question-and-answer session, grabbing an Egyptian flag and flashing the victory sign with both hands.

A few hundred demonstrators fell in line behind her and Maher, who gamely joined the English chants. The police allowed the march onto Wall Street itself, and at each corner the American leaders consulted an officer about the preferred route. Weary of the somewhat stilted slogans, which lacked the umph and rhythm of Egyptian chants, Mahfouz and Maher taught the crowd the iconic cry of the Arab uprisings: “Al shaab yurid isqat al nizam,” or “The people demand the fall of the regime.” The crowd adopted its own hybrid: “Al shaab yurid isqat Wall Street.”

As they wound back to Zuccotti Park, demonstrators awaited a cue from the police before crossing Broadway. It was too much for Mahfouz. She stopped in the middle of the intersection, stopped traffic, pumped a fist in the air, and demanded the fall of Wall Street. Nervous demonstrators skittered to the sidewalk, leaving Mahfouz with just the cameras and a few dozen stalwarts who seemed willing to accept her invitation to be arrested.

For a few seconds, there was a palpable crackle of tension. But the police, it seemed, didn’t want the hassle. They stepped back, and without a confrontation, the moment subsided. Mahfouz joined her comrades back on the sidewalk.

“I wanted to show them that they need to be tough, even if they get arrested,” she said with her trademark toothy smile. With that she repaired for a private session with Occupy organizers – she finally had found them – and the long trip back to Cairo the following day.

One-Man Tent, Tahrir version

Posted July 10th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing
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How to keep cool in the middle of a day-long protest in a shadeless square with the sun pushing temperatures to 100 degree Fahrenheit? Here was one man’s resourceful solution on July 8.

Reinvigorating Egypt’s Revolution

Posted July 10th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

CAIRO, Egypt — Friday’s “Day of Determination” (or “Day of Persistence”) continued overnight and into Saturday as a sit-in in Tahrir Square. It was the largest since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, and it marked a sort of inflection point for the popular uprising that began on January 25.

For the first time since mid-February, the crowd filled the entire square, and drew scores of regular folk who wouldn’t normally define themselves as political activists. The demonstration swelled to revolutionary size, to a large extent, because its organizers consciously eschewed politics.  Instead they resorted to a lowest-common denominator appeal to prosecute Hosni Mubarak and his henchmen. Justice for the crimes of the past, and for the crimes that continue, including police brutality, unaccountable government, and military detentions of protesters. Two words echoed above all: justice, and revenge.

That simple call galvanized the protest, although to some was its Achilles heel.

“The blood of the martyrs won’t be wasted,” the crowds chanted. Protesters carried pictures of Hosni Mubarak hanging from a noose (a common motif, also stenciled on walls around Tahrir).

A performer named Waleed Sheikh held a Mubarak marionette wearing the traditional red Egyptian death row suit, a star of David on the front. “I am manipulating him like he used to manipulate us!” Waleed said as he made the Mubarak doll dance, to the wild applause of onlookers.

Many of those in crowd said they hadn’t joined a protest since February, but were galvanized by the ruling junta’s foot-dragging on trials for Mubarak cronies and on police reform.

“I thought the government would be purified after the revolution,” said chemist Mahmoud Fathy, 29. “They are trying to outsmart the revolution, to outwait us and change nothing.”

Read the rest in The Atlantic.

Day of Persistence on The World

Posted July 8th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing
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Marco Werman asks me about today’s protests in Tahrir on The World. I’ll post more about this later, but the crowd today was larger and more harmonious than at any point since February, when President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. It certainly marked some kind of turning point in terms of popular impatience with the general who run Egypt, and it might signal something important about the enduring appeal of revolution and the failure, so far, of opposition politics to capture Egypt’s imagination.

Pushing the Boundaries

Posted July 8th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Ibrahim Eissa, seated right, approves a cartoon.

CAIRO, Egypt — On the fourth day of publication, Ibrahim Eissa bounds into the newsroom of Tahrirnewspaper, his latest anti-establishment venture and quite literally the offspring of Egypt’s January uprising. It’s midday, and he’s ready to plough through the day’s diet of news stories, opinion columns, and satirical cartoons that seem poised to make this tabloid the paper of record for the demographic known here simply as “the youth of the revolution.”

He’s wearing his trademark brown suspenders, and his trapezoidal mustache twitches as he hails the receptionist, the foreign news editor, and the managing editor.

“I’m the oldest person here,” proclaims Eissa, who appears also to be the most energetic. He later explains that youthfulness is a point of pride in Egypt’s gerontocracy, where the octogenarian president appointed septuagenarian deputies to run his police state. Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, Egypt’s current leader, is 75.

Tahrir launched at the beginning of July after months of planning. The paper is determined to challenge authoritarianism and corruption, and to cross whatever red lines Egypt’s rulers try to draw around a free press.

“Before, Mubarak was the red line,” Eissa says as he discusses the paper in his narrow corner office, as editors parade through. “Now the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has replaced Mubarak. They don’t want anyone to criticize them directly.”

Eissa still tends the most boisterous patch of Egypt’s still-tender garden of free expression. At 45, the veteran editor might boast the toughest hide of any Egyptian journalist. During the long tenure of President Hosni Mubarak, Eissa was fired from nearly a dozen jobs and dashed all the regime’s taboos. In 2007, he was sentenced to a year in prison for writing about Mubarak’s failing health, which was treated as a state secret. (The sentence later was overturned on appeal, but the case successfully muzzled the Egyptian press.) For five years, he ran the liveliest paper in Egypt, Al Dostour (“The Constitution”), building it into enough of a threat that in October 2010 Mubarak had a crony buy the paper and fire Eissa the next day.

Read the rest in The Atlantic.


Back in Tahrir for Tear Gas and Detention

Posted June 30th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

I returned to Egypt on Tuesday, escaping the tear gas and riots in Athens for the Cairene edition. I followed the parallel clashes on Twitter, and then headed out to Tahrir. The scene felt different than in February — a somewhat hard to parse mix of earnest protesters, activists, disenfranchised Egyptians, thugs, and soccer hooligans. As I tried to interview the father of a martyr from January, a pair of middle-aged men confronted me, with a mix of bullying, menace and manhandling that I’ve come to associate with regime figures or their henchmen. “How do we know you’re not a Jew?” one of them demanded. He had white hair and wore a light blue suit. With prompting from the crowd that assembled he demanded my Egyptian press card, which he grabbed, crumpled up, and stuffed in his pocket. After some shoving and shouting, he resolved to present me to the police — obviously, he said, I was a spy and not a journalist. (You can see him in the middle of the group pictured here; I snapped this with my iPhone while the citizens brigade contemplated what to do with me.)

The police officers at Marouf Street were unimpressed. They sent the man and his small mob on their way, and after a short time, the duty officer turned to me. “Imshee,” he said, “leave”* — one of the chants the crowds in Tahrir used to direct at Hosni Mubarak when he still was president.

You can read more detail about the day in my dispatch at The Atlantic.

CAIRO, Egypt — The city is combustible. On Tuesday night, seemingly out of nowhere, fighting engulfed Cairo at a pitch not seen since the Days of Rage in January and February that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign.

A group of families had gathered in another neighborhood to celebrate the martyrs killed during the revolution; no one knows who organized the event and who attended. No one knows exactly what happened next either — just that police tangled with the families, who then decided to march on the Ministry of the Interior in downtown Cairo. After nightfall, the fighting took on a momentum of its own. Hundreds of demonstrators massed at the interior ministry and later in Tahrir Square. Riot police shot tear gas and, according to protesters, rubber bullets. Demonstrators threw rocks and Molotov cocktails. The fighting surged on throughout the night, unabated.

By noon on Wednesday, several thousands of demonstrators were still battling the riot police. Reinforcements had arrived, including 20 ambulances. The fighting raged on Mohammed Mahmoud, the spur street off the southern end of Tahrir Square leading to the interior ministry. Men on ambulances ferried the hundreds of wounded back to the ambulances. The sting of tear gas stretched half a mile from the clashes, enveloping the entire square. Helpful men offered vinegar and Kleenex to alleviate the pain of inhaling the gas.

I was eager to talk to some of the martyrs’ families, find out how the whole melee began, and see how they felt it would affect their cause. Men and women huddled in knots, ignoring the tear gas, arguing about whether these clashes would undermine the revolution by alienating a wider Egyptian public that is tiring of protests. None of them were relatives of martyrs. Many of them were wary.

“I’ve been in Tahrir since January 25, and a lot of the faces I see out here today are not the usual faces,” said a 27-year-old accountant named Mahmoud. “A lot of them look like thugs.”

Read the rest here.

*In the original post, I had incorrectly written “emsha” for “imshee.”