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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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.