Knowns and Unknowns in Cairo

Cross-posted from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

A few hours after I arrived in Cairo, on March 22, a fire ripped through a building in the Interior Ministry compound. Was it started by demonstrators against the hated secret police, an echo of the much bigger fire of January 28 that destroyed the huge, hulking headquarters of Mubarak?s National Democratic Party (NDP)?an oppressive looking, pharaonic structure that looms up between the Nile and the Egyptian Museum, headquarters of the artifacts of the pharaohs of millennia past?

Or was the March 22 fire actually set by secret policemen burning their own files? No one knows. No one may ever know. Both scenarios are plausible.

Such is the human uncertainty that suffuses Cairo in the aftermath of the March 19 referendum. What emerges after the epiphanies and emergencies of the eighteen-day miracle uprising is politics?political maneuvers to define and inherit what most people call the revolution. In the thick of political tumult, with the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Tahrir Square students, and the unions maneuvering for advantage, it?s exceedingly hard to figure who?s up, who?s down, and what?s coming.

Most of the deeply informed people I?ve been able to talk to in two and a half days in Cairo?academics and journalists?are fairly gloomy in the aftermath of the referendum, though it was largely exuberant and reasonably free. (Still, as Yasmine El Rashidi reports in her informative New York Review of Books blog, to which I as an interloper am deeply indebted, some voters and observers were harassed?herself included?and, as more widely reported, Mohammed ElBaradei was met by a rock-throwing goon squad when he tried to vote.)

A yes vote meant fairly early elections and some minor modifications to the old regime?s constitution, which permitted and continues to permit emergency rule by presidential fiat. The student activists campaigned for a no, though not in a coordinated way. The most organized forces?the military, the NDP, the Muslim Brotherhood?campaigned for the yes, first on Islamist grounds, then in behalf of ?stability.? (For what it?s worth, as El Rashidi points out, the circle for marking ?yes? on the ballot was colored a bright Muslim green, the ?no? circle black.)

Divergences are apparent. There is not, or no longer, an uprising, but a lot of jockeying. Workers campaign, sometimes strike, for wage increases. Who can blame the multitude for wanting to get, or get back, to normal? With tourists no longer flowing into Cairo?the Egypt Air flight I took from New York was a gift to the passengers, who filled perhaps one-fifth of the seats, affording old-fashioned three-seat rows for sleeping in economy class?and business prospects uncertain, the longing for stability is palpable. But so is the celebratory spirit, even dampened in the letdown after Mubarak headed out of town to the beach.

It?s much noted that books previously available only privately are now for sale by street vendors, along with a huge range of newspapers, some independent.

In downtown Cairo, if not further out from the center, ?January 25? bumper stickers proliferate, especially on cabs?and this in a culture that, however numerous the cars, has never been into bumper stickers.

The military, which stood behind the referendum, is organized to rule. It has a far-flung economic apparatus to protect. According to two experienced reporters, ?everybody knows? it. The army, after all, was not only the salvation of the revolution?it has a lot at stake in keeping the question of its power unquestioned. There?s widespread suspicion that it has essentially, or literally, struck a deal with the Brotherhood?a sort of live-and-let-live power-sharing arrangement. In any case, there?s a de facto alliance. After all, as Michael Slackman writes in the New York Times, the Brotherhood is ?the best organized and most extensive opposition movement in Egypt,? and as a conservative force, it can, at least for a while, come to a modus vivendi with the military forces that, in fact, enforce a certain stability, courtesy of their curfew-enforcing road blocks, tanks and armed personnel carriers, and other manifestations of presence.

In the end, the yeses ran away with it: 77 percent. The vote was closer in the cities, especially Cairo. But as the widely read blogger Sandmonkey wrote on March 20, ?Cairo is not Egypt??an elementary fact easily forgotten by the Facebooking, Twittering activists in a country estimated to have 21-percent Internet penetration (5-percent Facebook) in 2010.

So, as Slackman writes, ?the young, educated secular activists who initially propelled the nonideological revolution are no longer the driving political force?at least not at the moment.?

The Tahrir Square activists are rallying back there this afternoon. They know they have a lot of work to do.

Meanwhile, traces of ash from the inferno at Mubarak headquarters still waft overhead, almost two months after the fire. Just so, the old order hovers over the atmosphere.

Top image: NDP headquarters, incinerated in January; Bottom image: books for sale in downtown Cairo

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