Outsiders in Their Own Country

There is something in the air in Egypt these days – – and I am not talking about the “Arab Spring”, a concept that seems to have come pre-packaged from the US Department of Infomercials and to be dieing a merciful media death. There’s something much more specific, and more real. Even the last art show I went to see here in Cairo was all about politics. A photo exhibit called “Peripherals”, about the suburbs and shantytowns around the city, was accompanied by a short video that told the stories of marginalized Egyptians; orphans, stoners, women bossed around by their fathers and husbands (told not to work or kept locked at home), prostitutes, but also many mundane individuals set apart only by their poverty.

The video included quotes like “Everyone is on their own here”, and “God make the situation better for the people of this county.” A few minutes of static were juxtaposed with a quote from an MP about the emergency law, in which he says it “is used to secure the freedoms of citizens” (the emergency law, which has been in place through most of Egypt’s modern history, blocks freedom of assembly and expression and allows arbitrary searches and detentions without charges). To me, one of the troubling suggestions of the show was that all Egyptians are marginalized, peripheral in their own country.

Many members of the elite move out to gated suburban communities; they choose to distance themselves from the city’s center and from its lovely, albeit decaying downtown (where I live). Many of the buildings there belong to government companies that have had them in trust since the nationalizations of the 1960s; the way these architectural jewels have been left to rot is a compelling metaphor for the way many of the country’s resources have been wasted by lack of interest and lack of vision. The downtown is known as wust al-balad (center of the country) — just as Cairo is referred to as “Misr”, the Egyptian word for Egypt (if you ever visit this enormous metropolis you will understand why it makes sense to equate it with the entire nation).

Just as they choose to live in new, shining, Western, a-historical settings, many in the upper class also set themselves apart from their own country: they speak English better than Arabic, go to foreign schools, invest their money abroad, and look down on their countrymen. Novelist Gamal Al Ghitani points out that while for the average Egyptian “Ibn el-balad” (“son of the country”) is one of the highest compliments, “baladi” (literally meaning “of the country”) is a derogatory term among the upper classes.

Meanwhile, the poor dream of escaping to a new existence but end up in shabby concrete tower blocks with no electricity. They live unwillingly on the edge, either on the outskirts of town or in its very center. There must be hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who live on the rooftops of buildings: whole families living in shacks built around rooms originally intended as servants’ sleeping quarters.

While both the rich and the poor live on the outer margins of Egypt, who then occupies its center? The presidency and the military, the feared state security forces, the voices of bankrupt stooges and apologists who write in the national press and head government-approved, so-called “opposition” parties.

Photographer Hala ElKoussy, who made the “Peripherals” show, pointed out that she is neither the first Egyptian to make politically engaged art nor was her original goal even to make such art. But it all seeps together — the cultural and political and the personal and the historical — especially at times like these, when something seems to be stirring.

A few months ago, under pressure to democratize, President Mubarak proposed a constitutional amendment that will allow others to run against him for the first time this September (he has been voted in for his last five terms in “yes”/”no” referendums). But this amendment, which still sets many requiremens for aspiring candidates, is widely seen as nothing but a PR move, and Mubarak is expected to win again (he hasn’t said he’ll run again yet, but all signs points toward it). In the last month in Egypt there have been demonstrations calling for greater political freedom — for the upcoming elections to be truly free — by Islamists, activists, leftists, journalists, students, judges, and professors.

Some of these demonstrations have rallied thousands of people; others have been prevented from taking place by massive deployment of state security forces (I live a block from Parliament, and can watch the squadrons of riot police march by). Even when protesters manage to congregate, they are always surrounded by 10-times the number of police. Regardless of the displays of state power, people seem less afraid to criticize, to say they are fed up, to raise their voice. Politics comes up at every turn: even during phone-ins on sports shows (callers recently opined that the reason Egypt’s soccer teams weren’t better was because of the lack of freedom in the country).

‘Reform’ and ‘democratization’ are the words of the moment, but what they will actually come to mean is the big question. There are government officials and advisors planning right now to lift the emergency law and replace it with an anti-terrorism law that will give the government all the same powers (an Egyptian Patriot Act). There are people in the government planning how to make Gamal Mubarak, the son of the current president, succeed his father. And there are people planning how to get the president himself re-elected in a landslide in the country’s first “democratic” “multi-candidate” elections.

I recently visited a neighborhood in which hundreds of pro-Mubarak banners have been hung. His image adorns poles and doorways to shops. But as it turns out no one from the area had actually put them up. A few political bigwigs, members of the president’s party with little local support, had done all the work (a typical love letter to the president read “Before and after the constitutional amendment, we are with, oh leader, oh chief.”)

This poster campaign is just another example of Egyptians’ wants and needs being pushed aside, their streets and storefronts nonchalantly used to stage hysterical political theatre in which they have little investment. All of this is based on the callous assumptions that the Egyptian people will never stand up for themselves, will never tear down a poster they disagree with, will never demand ownership of their own country. Yet in this same neighborhood, hundreds of posters of the president show his face systematically scratched out.

While Egyptian society may be mostly polarized and segregated, and rich and poor Egyptian may be for the most part apolitical, there are and there have always been Egyptians from all classes who have come together to demand their rights. As found on one of my favorite Egyptian blogs recently: “Eighty six years ago, in March 1919, beginning with a protest by law school students on March 9, the Egyptian people rose up against their British overseers and demanded independence and self-rule . . . Acting British high commissioner Sir Milne Cheetham warned Lord Curzon in London on March 17, ‘I should make it clear that present movement in Egypt is national in the full sense of the word. It has now apparently the sympathy of all classes and credits, including the Copts.'” (Coptic Christians make up 5 to 10 percent of the Egyptian population and were mistakenly viewed by the British as their “allies” against the Muslim majority.)

The other night I was at a concert in a fantastic new performance space that has been created by a former minister’s son in an abandoned lot under a freeway overpass. The space is open to all Egyptians (the price of a ticket is very reasonable) and the acts you see there are local bands and such icons of Egyptian counter-culture as poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, who become famous in the 1970s for penning anti-Sadat songs. What was once a government-owned wasteland has been turned into a lovely, crowded, Nile-side concert hall.

Such instances of re-appropriation of public space (both physical, linguistic and political) are still rare. Those in power have used every possible strategy to keep the public arena empty, making it a vast echo chamber filled only with the sound of their own empty rhetoric. America has long been complicit — giving $2 billion a year to its “strategic ally” in the region. Now the US is supposedly pressuring Egypt to democratize, but it’s unimaginable it will ever countenance a democratically elected but unfriendly government here. The Egyptian regime knows if they reform a little, privatize a little, and are a little friendlier to Israel, the US administration will be pleased with them and won’t push for more substantive change.

But what the opposition movement hopes for is a real change, not a few strategic adjustments. They’d like to see Egyptians own their own country, from its streets to its corridors of power.