Atlantic Monthly

Mistrust Spreads Among Egypt’s Protesters: A Day and Night in Tahrir

Originally appeared in The Atlantic.

CAIRO, Egypt — There is trouble in paradise, and its name is fitna. At 2 a.m. yesterday in Tahrir Square, a brawl erupted near the Iberia Airlines office. It was not a fair fight: A crowd ganged up on one middle-aged man who had remarked loudly that he thought the anti-regime coalition was going to fall apart because of religious differences (devout vs. secular, Christian vs. Muslim). Another man overheard him, told him to shut up, and gathered a crowd first to shout him down and then shove him around. The first man gave up and skulked off, eventually scowling alone on the pavement, with his back against the stone wall of a travel agency, his arms hugging his sweater and his hands and face pelted with cold rain. The crowd yelled after him: “Fitna! Fitna! Fitna!” — an Arabic word with a long history and a complicated English meaning, a cross between “strife,” “disagreement,” “discord,” or “sedition.” Or in plain English: “Why can’t we all just get along?”

The situation among Egypt’s protesters now shifts not by the minute or hour but by the day. With this new metabolism, the protest movement is having to deal with threats more subtle than flying bricks. Dissent and subversion are major preoccupations: There are signs of jitters, even paranoia. Foreigners now have to prove their identity as members of the press, and protesters identifying themselves as members of the movement’s “security” team approach in the square to demand a reporter’s identity documents. Until recently, this happened only on the outside.

After the fitna man walked away fuming, Muhammad Mamdouh voiced a suspicion. “He may have been sent here by [Vice President Omar] Suleiman,” he said, referring to the Egyptian spymaster now assumed to be running the country. Mamdouh observed that until that day, the military hadn’t allowed any food sellers in, and everyone had to pack in his own bread, spreads, and tubs of the Egyptian pasta-rice-tomato melee known as koshary. “Why till now don’t you see the sellers? [Suleiman] introduced them to make crowds gather around them, to let things like this happen.” He said he thought the man was a Mubarak agent, sent to make divisive comments in crowds and undermine the revolution. So now in addition to Molotov cocktails, the protesters must deal with the koshary threat.

Time is only partially on the protesters’ side. They are, on the one hand, still wholly defiant, and if anything more resolved than on Friday. Ahmed, 24, repeated a line that I heard at least half a dozen times during a night in the square: “Half a revolution is like suicide,” he said. If they leave now, the government will renege, and the protesters will begin to disappear in the night. He said he abandoned a lucrative perfume shop in 6 October City to be here, and now that he has seen fighting he has no fear. “When the police come, their first bullet makes you scared,” he said. “But the second bullet, you catch it.” He clawed once at the air, plucking an imaginary bullet from its path, like Mr. Miyagi catching a fly.

But with time, the protesters are having to develop systems for managing not only spies and perceived spies, but legitimate dissent in their midst. Around midnight, a group convened near the Arab League to produce propaganda videos. About half a dozen young organizers, more than half of them chic young women, sat in the middle of a crowd of about 40, reading out the concerns that they had heard on state media and inviting members of the crowd to respond by speaking to their cameras and producing videos that would later appear on YouTube. The meeting was a mess, with nearly all voices rendered inaudible by crosstalk. In the middle of filming, a man broke into the circle and screamed curses at them for bothering with this exercise while neglecting the core work of manning the barricades and watching for the next attack. Was this fitna? The crowd seemed unsure. Some applauded.

Now tasting disunity, demonstrators have to police themselves in case one faction decides to open negotiation with the government.The men at the barricades have not had to repel a serious attack since Thursday night. Since “Bloody Wednesday” (as the protesters now call it), they have worked out simple systems of communication to tell each other when there’s a threat nearby (whistle for more help, bang metal when you think you see something, wave your hands above your head to tell the incoming crowd that the situation is controlled). Alarms went out twice that night — both times when the army turned over the ignition of the tanks near the Egyptian Museum, presumably to inch a little closer to the square and encroach on the protesters’ space. Both times, a crowd gathered to sit in front of the tanks. After the second time, a few protesters just decided to spend the night curled in among the tanks’ sprockets and treads, their bodies interlaced so that even a slight movement by a tank would grind them up. At four in the morning, these protesters were snoring. The tanks haven’t been turned on since.

Even with the worries, an atmosphere of jubilation and tranquility rules the square. During the day, men, women, and even small children give speeches at the podium at Tahrir’s eastern edge, near the Hardee’s restaurant that has been converted into a potable water station. During the night, the podium hosted oud players and singers who performed well past three in the morning. Protesters have used the stones they stockpiled near the barricades to write out messages on the ground. One says “GO AWAY,” but in mirror-writing. I asked one of the men who arranged it why it was backwards. “Well,” he said with a shrug, “Mubarak doesn’t seem to understand it when we write forwards.”
Some are calling this love-in “the Republic of Tahrir,” which captures well the other-worldliness of the place — of Egypt but not in it, a most serene independent state whose laws and freedom stopped at the barricades. But the Tahrir Republic doesn’t quite deserve the name yet. The protesters in Tahrir have so far gotten along swimmingly because their hatred of Mubarak has united them. Now, both on the ground in Tahrir and in politics beyond, they are beginning to taste disunity, and to police themselves in case one faction decides to open negotiation with the government.

Whether that self-policing will graduate to the level of more over suppression of dissent is not yet clear. There would be a poetic injustice in seeing the movement fray because it failed — just as Egypt as a whole has failed — to contain and manage dissenters and spies. (Our point exactly, Suleiman might say, with a dishonest sneer. Perhaps you’d like a side-order of order with your chaos?) There is still precious little evidence that there is much dissent of any kind in the Republic of Tahrir, which means it still functions admirably as an anarcho-commune, rather than as a republic. But the dissent will come.

I asked Mamdouh, the man who posited the koshary conspiracy, whether there might be any irony in a democratic movement beginning to shout down open debate. “No,” he corrected me. “Tuesday was democracy,” he said, referred to the day before the violence, when crowds thronged peacefully and in huge numbers to demand Mubarak’s ouster. “Wednesday was war. And now, any opinion is allowed — but just no pro-Mubarak.” He made sense. Eventually, democracy will require the protesters to embrace fitna, rather than stamp it out. But that moment hasn’t yet arrived.


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