Tag Archives: Ruminations on the state of the world

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.

 

 

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.

 

Making Jewelry in Cambridge (or, Crafts as Leisure in the Developed World)

This evening I took a jewelry making class at Boston Bead Works in Cambridge.  The shop, on a side street in Harvard Square, is a great local secret for bead and jewelry aficionados, and contains a wide selection of glass beads, cloisonne, and semi-precious stones. Though I’ve dabbled in jewelry making off and on (mostly off) for many years, I’d never taken a class before, and was pleasantly surprised. The class was small, the instructor was attentive, and at the end of the evening, I had a shiny set of earrings made with a wire-wrapping technique I’d never before seen, stringing amethyst beads inside a silver hoop to resemble an abacus.

 

Abacus Earrings

The photo quality here isn’t great because I took the picture with my ipod. But you get the idea.

 

Though I could leave the post here, as a “this is a cool thing to do if you’re in Boston,” I prefer to take a moment to think about why activities of this kind are available specifically here. Bead shops like this one exist in cities all over the US, and I’ve seen them in Western Europe as well. In the developing world, though, art supply shops with classes on how to make things are pretty much non-existent. In China, when I was buying seed pearls, the saleslady was aghast that I wanted to leave my strung pearls as-is, rather than having them made up into a necklace or earrings right away (I relented and allowed her to turn a few strands into jewelry there at the shop–the necklace and earrings that she put together are quite lovely). Point being, though, that the idea that I would want to go home, take the strands apart, and make something by myself was pretty much unheard of.

There’s a particular mentality in the West, and in the US in particular, that basic art techniques can and should be accessible to everyone, if only on the simplest levels. Shops like this one offering beginning jewelry making, paper embossing, paint-your-own pottery, etc. are exceedingly common. The do-it-yourself mentality is strong, and structured art projects give people a sense of fun and accomplishment.

From what I’ve seen in the developing world, things are very different. Crafts like pottery and jewelry making are seen as professions, rather than leisure activities for the middle class. Though I did have a friend in Morocco who made pottery for fun, she was very much in the minority. And the fact that she worked closely with American Peace Corps volunteers may have something to do with her view of art as a potential leisure activity.

What makes this difference, between craft as profession and craft as leisure? In some ways, it may come from how consumer goods are produced in a given society. In a society like Morocco, where until very recently most peoples’ plates and cups came directly from the potter’s wheel and had damned well better be usable, making pottery was not something to be tinkered with. Likewise, if you wanted jewelry, it was going to be handmade by a craftsperson, and the supplies needed would generally only be available to the professionals. In a society like the US, where most of our plates, cups, jewelry, and pretty much every material object is manufactured, rather than made, crafts like pottery and jewelry making are seen as quaint activities and throwbacks to an earlier time. If you make your own bowl and it breaks, you might be sad, but you can still buy another bowl at Target. If you make your own earrings and mow through a foot of silver wire trying to bend it into the right shape, it’s okay, you can still buy earrings at the mall. Your efforts aren’t materially affecting your well-being, nor are they taking away from anyone else’s profession. So you’re free to explore, and free to screw up, and you spend an enjoyable afternoon. I’ll be curious to see, as manufactured goods spread to more societies, and as leisure time among the middle classes increases, whether the phenomenon of do-it-yourself craftwork catches on in the developing world.

Reflections on Bin Laden’s death

The news of Osama Bin Laden’s death has spread around the world like wildfire. Many Americans seem overjoyed at this news, and impromptu celebrations have broken out in New York and DC. An outpouring of yay-America-down-with-the-evil-terrorists sentiment prevailed.

I understand that many people feel that the death of Bin Laden at the hands of US operatives constitutes justice and retribution for the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Very few people have said as much, but there seems to be a sense that since the bad guy is dead the world can return to normal and all is right with the world, just like in a Disney movie. I can’t be so sure. First of all, it strikes me as simplistic to think of one person as a personification of evil. In my experience, the world is rarely so black and white. Furthermore, the idea of celebrating anyone’s death with jubilation is morally repugnant to me. Even a political enemy. Even a terrorist. His death may have been politically necessary, but that does not change the fact that he is still a human being. His death is not a cause for celebration, nor does it make America great.

The US has invested a lot of time, effort, blood, and money in Iraq and Afghanistan over the course of the past decade. The death of a terrorist figurehead will not change that investment, nor will it be the cue for America’s forces to pick up and go home. The US has reasons to stay in the Middle East, and fighting terrorism is only one of them. The death of Bin Laden is unlikely to put any kind of stop to terrorist action in the world. If anything, news of US citizens celebrating Osama’s death is likely to fuel anti-American sentiment in regions that already have no reason to love the USA but are afraid to get on its bad side. Not to mention the fact that every child who grows up in a refugee camp because US bombs destroyed his home has the motivation to become a terrorist. The US has created a lot of orphans like this–we have effectively planted dragon’s teeth. From what I have learned this year on the psychology of conflict,we’re going to be facing war for a long, long time.

Subdued response to news in Middle East (CNN)

Pakistani News in English (link courtesy of a Pakistani friend of mine)

Al Jazeera English (the best source for non-US-centric news on the Middle East)