International Herald Tribune New York Times

Microrevolutions off Tahrir Square

Originally published on the IHT‘s Latitude blog.

CAIRO — It has been nearly three months since the last really big, unmanageable crowd converged on Tahrir Square and threatened to stay until its demands were met. On the eve of Ramadan, in early August, the Egyptian military smacked and clubbed that group — a broad but woefully inarticulate coalition opposing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ hold on power — out of the square. And much to the protesters’ horror, the majority of Egyptians seemed fairly satisfied with the pushback, preferring a return to order even if it came with a military policeman’s truncheon.

Where, then, has the world’s most famous protest movement gone? By the looks of Cairo’s streets now, it seems to have been hit by a meteor, smashed and scattered into a thousand little protests around the city. And these mini-protests all have in common that they are small and tentative and highly unlikely to threaten seriously the military government of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

Cairo’s downtown — which on most days is, for a city its size, remarkably free of vagrants and dozing homeless people — now has small clusters of protesters encamped on its streets. These groups are usually just small enough to be ignored.

In the past week, the largest gathering was of the Cairo police. Just a few blocks west of Tahrir Square, thousands of boisterous officers gathered day and night, loudly demanding wage increases in front of the Interior Ministry. “They are thieves,” a teenage student named Abdullah told me, watching them in disgust last Tuesday afternoon. He said their demands for triple pay were extortionate. But many Cairenes fear that crime and anarchy might ensue if the policemen continue to strike; few are willing to call their bluff. At one o’clock that night, the cops were audible from two blocks away.

But they, at least, aren’t being delusional or wildly optimistic in their demands. In front of the headquarters of the Arab League, Syrian protesters stand by members of the Muslim Brotherhood asking that the organization add its featherweight of influence to the forces opposing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Near the People’s Assembly, two men sit next to banners asking that Tantawi guarantee the rights of the disabled. The banners flap so violently in the winds of passing traffic as to be almost illegible.

Perhaps most forlorn of all of Cairos’ protesters are the dozen or so Salafis who have spent more than two months sleeping on the pavement in front of the souvenir shops by the Semiramis Hotel. These men have erected signs urging the U.S. embassy, which sits a block away behind massive walls, to release their spiritual leader, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who is currently serving a life sentence in the United States for helping bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. Also known as the Blind Sheik, Abdel Rahman will almost certainly die in the North Carolina penitentiary where he is held. The peaceful sit-in arranged by these protesters — led by members of Abdel Rahman’s family — is so hopeless that even U.S. Embassy staff members who walk by them on the way to work seem more amused than menaced.

All these protesters have, in a way, assimilated the most optimistic lesson of Tahrir Square: that in the right conditions people power, and the determined efforts of the nonviolent, can succeed against strong enemies. Even the followers of the Blind Sheik — who has unambiguously espoused a violent version of jihad — insist that their protest is nonviolent and that they rebuff all urgings to take up arms to secure his release.

What they haven’t solved is the same riddle that the rest of the Tahrir Generation is puzzling through: What constitutes an effective second act when the first act was so dramatic that it is essentially impossible to top? Should today’s protesters try even merely to replicate the success of previous demonstrations, they would face a military that knows it has the populace largely on its side — at least until an alternative leadership that can promise stability emerges.

Chaos doesn’t work backward: the protesters won’t unfragment. But Tantawi’s solid-looking military might eventually cease to seem like a safe bet for ordinary Egyptians. The gunwales of the ship of state did wobble perceptibly last month after the military and unidentified assailants killed 27 Coptic Christians demonstrating in front of Maspero, the Egyptian state television building on the banks of the Nile. And if, as it appeared briefly then, the military comes to seem unable to provide peace or justice, the balance may shift.


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