Tag Archives: politics

Who to Blame? Understanding the Massacre at Port Said

When last I posted, I was cautiously optimistic about the anniversary of the January 25 revolution. As the days passed with only minor scuffles, I breathed an internal sigh of relief. The worst was over, and we were on track for a peaceful post-revolutionary year.  That relief, however, was premature. The bloodbath that I expected didn’t fail to take place, it was simply postponed.

On Wednesday evening a football match in Port Said ended in horrific violence, with 73 people dead and over a thousand people injured. Egypt’s population is grieving,  shocked, and outraged, and  they’ve  taken to the streets. Predictably, a number of these peaceful marches have been met with birdshot and tear gas from security forces. In the 48 hours since the massacre took place, at least seven people have died in Cairo and Suez.  I expect the protests—and the counterfighting that goes with the protests—to continue for several more days.

What actually happened in Port Said? It’s difficult to say. So many different versions of the story have circulated since the massacre took place that it’s nearly impossible to know the truth.

The verifiable facts of the situation are these: at the end of the match, between the local underdog al-Masry team that won against the powerful al-Ahly team from Cairo, people rushed the field from the al-Masry side. The doors between the stands and the field were open, which they should not have been. The security presence was lower than normal.  Police in riot gear failed to intervene. The lights were extinguished. The doors to exit the stadium were locked.

And fifteen minutes later, seventy-three people were either stabbed, suffocated, or trampled to death.

What actually happened? Who can we blame? Which of the many conflicting narratives can we possibly believe?

In the first version of the story, the massacre was just a football match gone wrong. Small fights are common at nearly every game. One of my Egyptian friends told me that random fistfights and projectiles were “part of the experience” of going to a match.  This game, for whatever reason, had insufficient and/or inexperienced security that made all the wrong decisions when faced with a commonplace sports riot. Tensions are running high in Egypt right now, and things got out of hand. It could have happened anywhere, in any country, without enough security to keep the fans contained. Shame that it had to happen here.  But why was the security so lax? Why haven’t other matches since last January had similar levels of violence? And why was the attack instigated by fans of the winning team?

In the second version of the story, the massacre was a premeditated event. Someone—the most popular candidate is SCAF and/or the remnants of the old Mubarak regime—brought in thugs from the outside, armed with knives, and positioned them near the open gates to the pitch so that they’d be poised and ready to do their worst as soon as the game was complete, regardless of who won. The absence of security was deliberate, as was the inaction of whatever forces were present. Doors were closed to prevent people from escaping. The lights were turned out so that no video cameras would be able capture the truth.

Motivations in this theory vary. The al-Ahly fans known as the Ultras have been prominent in Egypt’s ongoing protests. By attacking them, SCAF could get rid of some of its strongest and most vocal opponents. A number of Cairo revolutionaries see the attack as the beginning of a revenge plot against participants in the revolution. Others see the attack as part of a pattern of violent crime that has arisen since January 24, when the government revoked the “state of emergency” under which Egypt has been ruled for the last 30 years. In the last week, there have been multiple bank robberies—a type of large-scale crime nearly unheard-of in Egypt up until now. Many believe that the upswing in violent crime is being orchestrated so that SCAF can justify re-instating emergency law, and ultimately justify maintaining its own power rather than transferring power to a civilian government. But if SCAF wants to demonstrate how necessary it is for maintaining stability, why carry out such a breach in its role of protection?

And today, the state-run Nile News TV channel declared that the football massacre was orchestrated by US and German spies as retaliation for the raids on NGOs. Invisible foreign hands were at work to try to undermine the integrity of the nascent government and push their own political agenda. But would foreign spies really give a damn about a football match? And aren’t the people of Egypt capable of rioting on their own?

It’s hard to know what to believe out of all these conflicting information streams. Each one is plausible, to a certain extent, and each one is problematic. Like all situations with multiple narratives, the truth lies somewhere in between the different lines. We may never discover what the truth really is. But one common theme is that everyone wants to point the finger at someone else, to distance themselves from this horrible event. Whose fault was it? Blame the football fans, blame hired thugs, blame the police, blame SCAF, blame foreign spies, blame someone. Anyone. Because no one wants to accept responsibility for such a heinous event. No one wants to accept that they might have had a role, however small.

Everywhere, everyone makes the same refrain: “It was other people, bad people, not us.”

Not us.

I do not believe in such things as “good people” and “bad people.” I believe only in the existence of people, full stop. People, who are capable of both good and bad actions. People, and the choices they make, based on the situations that they find themselves in.

Whatever happened on Wednesday, it was the result of human agency. People. Making choices.

I do not pretend to know who instigated the attacks, whether or not they were premeditated, who made the myriad decisions that ended in disaster. All I know is that these decisions were made by people, individually and collectively. And the repercussions of those decisions will scar Egypt for a very, very long time.

 

 

January 25th Revolution, One Year Later

On this day, one year ago, Egyptians took to the streets to protest the regime of then-President Hosni Mubarak. Following the example of Tunisia, protesters gathered to demand “bread and freedom,” and later escalated their demands to “the People want to bring down the Regime. ” The independent paper Al Masry Al Youm reported that it could be “the start of something big.

And so it was.

Two and a half weeks later, Mubarak stepped down. People rejoiced–they had brought down  the Regime.

A year later, though, it’s clear that the Regime is still here–like a hydra, its head was removed only to sprout a dozen more in the form of the generals of SCAF. Mohamed El Baradei, Nobel Peace Prize winner and presidential hopeful, publicly withdrew his candidacy because “the old regime has not fallen yet.”

It’s been an interesting year. A year of hope and disappointment, of protests and violent military crackdowns reported as “clashes.” Of increasing confusion as to what the revolution has accomplished, and whether or not is has continued  or concluded or simply fallen into stagnation. A year whose official timeline is incomplete and filled with blood.

Today, people are gathering all over the city to remember this last year of revolution, to commemorate all those who died, all those who were detained, blinded, tortured, and sexually assaulted. All roads today now lead to Tahrir, and some reports from Twitter say that the square is already so filled with people that the marchers coming in from all over the city might not even make it into the  square itself.

Today’s marches and demonstrations, inshallah, will be peaceful. Indeed, I’m fairly sure that they will be, for as long as the daylight lasts.  But the worst military crackdowns have always happened after dark, and so I’m waiting to see what happens after sunset, and what happens over the course of the next three days.

Inshallah…

For real-time updates, I’ll be following the Egypt Live Blog on Al-Jazeera. I recommend that you do the same.

 

 

 

Catching up on Egyptian News–Protests and Elections

I have begun and discarded half a dozen entries since my last post.  It’s hard to know what to blog about when the situation is changing by  the hour, and after a certain point things become too complicated to explain them in real time. At first, I followed the violence in Tahrir so closely that it became my full-time job. Then I hit a saturation point, in which I literally could not look at one more news article or twitter update without feeling that I might go mad. Ignorance was starting to seem like bliss.

I spent almost two days trying to ignore the news as much as possible, meaning that I only checked my news feeds and twitter 2 or 3 times a day, instead of hovering over them constantly.  It was  American Thanksgiving, and I decided that the holiday meant taking a break from the real world.  The real world, however, was impossible to shut out.  Even though I wasn’t physically present in the square, Tahrir was the only thing that really existed.

I tuned in to find news of a police officer called the “eye-hunter” deliberately blinding protesters and  American-made tear gas (plus  nerve gas of unknown provenance) being used against protesters in the square. Even the news itself became suspect. One of my favorite news websites, Al Masry Al Youm (to which I refer  positively in my post about Egyptian news sources) was taken offline for 48 hours.  When the site returned, it was full of state propaganda: “who will protect the people if not SCAF?”  So much for freedom of the press.

If I’d had any desire to go to the protests myself,  it would have been quickly quelled. Not just by the tear/nerve gas, but by the fact that as a foreigner and a woman I could have easily been turned into a pawn or a victim–and possibly both. Three American students were arrested near the square on bogus charges of throwing Molotov cocktails. At the same time, government representatives talked about “infiltrators” and “outside agents” stirring up trouble in Tahrir–as though the government’s own excesses weren’t enough to make people take to the streets on their own. The last thing I wanted was to be held up as one of those “outside agents.” Especially when there were female journalists being arrested and  sexually assaulted.
An Egyptian friend of mine took part in the protests, and I gave her some money to buy extra gas masks to distribute. It was the only concrete way besides twittering that I felt I was able to contribute to the cause.

And now.

Things are quieter. The first phase of elections is complete.

I went to stay with a friend in Alexandria during the elections, and we were prepared to hunker down under self-imposed house arrest in case of riots. But everything was calm. The day dawned rainy, and I took it as a good sign. Men and women lined up peacefully in separate lines and waited their turn to vote. They even managed to agree to disagree sometimes.  There were questions, among those who had been in Tahrir, whether the election as overseen by SCAF was legitimate; whether voting was or was not the next manifestation of the people exercising power as they’d done in Tahrir. A 62% voter turn out rate so far indicates that more people than not decided voting was a good idea.

Since the days of voting, we’ve returned to a semblance of calm. Which is not to say that there haven’t been protests. Just that they’ve been smaller, and the police and army haven’t seen fit to attack. Yesterday, protesters wearing eye patches marched to express solidarity with protesters who lost their eyes in the last week.  Today, more protesters marched with coffins to symbolically represent those who died. The marches right now are about mourning and acknowledging the sacrifices that people have made to free their country from military rule. Inshallah those sacrifices will not have been in vain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tahrir, the US, and Democracy

A lot has happened since my last entry, and it seems that we’re going to need a lot more than wishes on rainy days to keep Egypt peaceful through the upcoming elections.  For those who haven’t been following, protests started in Tahrir this past Thursday, and have continued  up to today, becoming increasingly violent from Saturday on. Yesterday on my way home from a conference I passed near Tahrir, and saw lines of army vehicles on their way into the square, and lines of ambulances waiting outside. I knew, even before getting home and seeing the news, that things had gotten bad. Most recent body count that I can find is 35 for this weekend, with about 1700 injured (including at least 2 who lost their eyes).

I came home to the news of escalating violence after attending a conference on Sustainable Development in North Africa during the day. The conference was fantastic, filled with passionate people trying to help their countries. I met attendees from Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Sudan.  I couldn’t help feeling, with the juxtaposition of the conference and the news, that I was seeing both the absolute best and the absolute worst to be found in Egypt, all in the space of 24 hours. The disconnect made me dizzy.

At the conference, a young man from Ethiopia asked me why I wasn’t in Tahrir, joining the protesters in their struggles. “You’re an American,” he said. “America is the seat of democracy in the world. You should be there, fighting for democracy.”

He was nonplussed when I responded. It wasn’t my country, I said, it wasn’t my fight. I do development work. Aren’t we at a conference for Sustainable Development? I’m trying to build things for when the fighting’s over.

“But it is your fight,” he insisted.  I should be there, helping. As though my very American-ness, if present, would be the key to reversing the military dictatorship and restoring peace, harmony, and citizen rule. The fact that I am Very White, Very Female, Very Non-Arabic-Speaking, Very Obviously Out of Place, and would be Very Much Alone in the midst of tanks and live bullets didn’t seem to occur to him. Or simply might not be relevant, if my Democratic American-ness had the power to trump all.

In a way, it was nice to hear the confidence and esteem in which this young man seemed to hold the US, despite the political vagaries of the last decade. But it also made me acutely conscious of how the US has failed to uphold its own standards of First Amendment rights, and very acutely aware of how badly the US police was handling the Occupy movement. At the same time that I had been posting news about Tahrir Square on facebook, my US-based compatriots were posting pictures and news from various Occupy encampments that had turned violent—most recently, pictures of students at UC Davis being sprayed with tear gas, which look remarkably similar to pictures of police attacking protestors at Tahrir.

One of these two pictures comes from “the seat of world democracy.” The other comes from a military dictatorship. Can you tell which is which?

Tear gas in Tahrir
Tear Gas at UC Davis

As though reading my mind, he asked me, “what is this I am seeing on the news from the US? This Occupy thing?” He charged ahead before I could start to explain the movement. (For the record, it’s very difficult to explain OWS to people from developing countries. Materially, most of the 99%ers still have a lot more than the average person from the developing world.). He asked me, with genuine confusion, whether it was true that police were attacking peaceful protesters in America. In his view of the US as the seat of world democracy, pictures like the one above have no place. He was struggling to find a context in his mind for something that shouldn’t exist.

Sadly, I couldn’t answer his question. I don’t  know why First Amendment rights in the US, guaranteeing “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” are being violated. I don’t know why my country, which has claimed since the Constitution was written to hold a moral high ground with regards to citizen’s rights, has suddenly decided that its citizens are such fearsome creatures as to be tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and beaten because they happen to be camping out to make a political point. Egypt has the excuse of being a post-revolutionary state without a government. The US has no such excuse.

So I couldn’t answer, when my new friend asked me all of these pointed, awkward questions. Fortunately, he didn’t expect for me to have all the answers. He just expected me to find them out.

“When you meet President Obama, please ask him these questions for me.”

I will, friend. If and when I meet Obama, I most definitely will.