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Postcards from Tahrir: 'No freedom, bread or social justice'

As Egypt’s currency continues to fall and the IMF strings for a bailout package that will end fuel and food subsides, popular anger has turned on the country’s first democratically elected president. Now, out on the streets of Cairo, protesters are being confronted by the same forces they fought in order to overthrow Mubarak in 2011.

By Jesse Rosenfeld

Black Bloc and Tahrir youth celebrate atop a torched, commandeered police truck in the center of the square. (photo: Jesse Rosenfeld)

CAIRO – Concrete walls have replaced the barbwire at the end of my street, sealing off the banks, the Parliament and western embassies from the rest of Cairo’s downtown. With nothing but lines of riot police and armored vehicles filling the concrete cordon, Egyptian security forces have created a fortress of wealth next door to the blocked off Tahrir square.

Clashes continue to rage on the edges of Tahrir as Cairo saw the first two deaths of the latest round of revolt. Around the country, the death toll has already surpassed 50.

Fierce street battles take place on the Corniche, nearby bridges and side streets, continuing to paralyze the downtown as the cycle of intense violence covers up a reality in which the protests have been geographically contained by security forces. Meanwhile, there seems no strategy for those in the street to expand their struggle.

As Egypt’s currency continues to fall and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) strings for a bailout package threaten to end prized fuel and food subsides, popular anger has turned on Egypt’s first democratically elected president who is being held responsible for his inability to meet the street’s demand for freedom and economic justice. Compounding the rapid disillusionment with the post-Mubarak political process is mistrust of the Muslim Brotherhood, following December’s constitutional process that focused on emboldening Islamic influence over the state, and enshrining military trials for civilians, all the while negating political freedoms and economic demands. Meanwhile in the streets, people are being aggressivly confronted by the same security forces they fought to take down Mubarak in 2011.

In the absence of the social resistance and the widespread labor strikes that were pivotal in the 18 days that brought down Mubarak, the intensity of the riots has spiked. Molotov cocktails and fireworks accompany rocks hurled at police and Corniche hotels while security forces use birdshot, and reportedly live bullets, alongside the clouds of teargas that never really clear from downtown. A state of emergency has been declared in Suez Canal cities where live fire has become a regular occurrence during street protests – seemingly from the crowd and the security forces – and there are reports of automatic weapons spraying mass street gatherings with bullets.

There is no love lost between the Egypt’s revolutionaries and security forces. As I wander through Tahrir towards the Corniche clashes on Monday evening, the night sky has a yellowish-red tint from the combination of smoke and teargas. Amid the crowded square where everyone is on edge (clashes have been pushed right to the edge of Tahrir), a group of ‘black bloc’ and young protesters ride into the center of the square atop a commandeered police riot truck. I’m pushed in every direction as cheering crowds stream past me to swarm the hated symbol of repression. Young people dance on the roof, singing and cheering as fireworks go off. Soon enough, the remnants of police riot gear is pulled from the armored truck as it is set ablaze next to Tahrir’s tents.

The streets around the square are unpredictable these days, empty one minute and filled with thousands of protesters and riot cops the next. Leaving the square for the impromptu frontlines gives an ominous feeling of walking into the abyss. Protesters set bonfires that dissipate the teargas and replace it with thick smoke and the smell of burning sage, illuminating the night and marking the fluid points of confrontation. I’ve doubled up on the hospital masks around my face in a bid to withstand the fumes as Molotovs are hurled and fireworks shot at the Intercontinental Hotel and police lines on the edge of the walled neighborhood of  Garden City – a symbol of wealth and power. The flashpoint symbolizes the rage at inequality and lack of social justice since Mubarak’s downfall.

Clashes like this are a daily and nightly occurrence and it is in this context I discover my phone and data credit – which has become like a lifeline – has mysteriously evaporated. Government and corporate bureaucracies in Egypt function about as efficiently as an under-supervised third grade class trip to the chocolate factory, and nowhere is this clearer than with the Vodaphone network.

After going to the cell phone store around the corner from my apartment to inquire, I am told the person from whom I bought the credit – which should have lasted a month – didn’t activate the right package and my credit had been used up. However, after much arguing in a mix of Arabic and English, I’m told there is nothing they could do other than file a complaint that would take several days. Otherwise I’d need to go to the store I bought it from.

So after roundabout taxi ride toward the leafy Cairo establishment island of Zamalek – dodging the continuous clashes on the Corniche as teargas floods in through the windows – I arrive at the tranquil bane of my cellphone anguish. Inside the store, another argument ensues with the manager over who is responsible, as he tries protect his colleague from culpability. As the discussion goes in unresolvable circles, I insist that I need the company to fix the problem immediate so I can get out of this bizarre Westernized oasis of wealth and back to the center of a dividing country. All of a sudden the manager, 27-year-old Mohammad Samy, stops arguing and looks at me intensely.

“Tahrir!” he says with a glint in his eye and a tone that suggests he now understands why my frustration is reaching boiling point. “I love the revolution,” he exclaims.

Bending his head down, he points to a bald indentation at the back of his skull. “You see this,” he asks. “It’s from the 25th [of January, 2013], when the Muslim Brotherhood were throwing rocks onto us from the October 6 bridge.”

The scruffy, slightly balding young guy then lifts up one leg of his jeans to show me the scars of bullet wounds. He tells me that those wounds are from the primarily leftist based, anti-SCAF demonstrations in November 2011 on Mohammad Mahmoud street just off Tahrir. During those demonstrations, his cousin – a 17-year-old boy nicknamed Gika – became one of the first martyrs of the post-Mubarak protests. A banner with his photo still hangs in the square and his name has become a protest chant demanding justice for those killed.

Samy was first politicized during the 2003 anti-Iraq War protests in Egypt and continued his activism throughout his university studies. He says he supports Mohammed ElBaradei’s Constitution Party and loves the nationalist-oriented Kefiya and leftist April 6 movements. For him, the struggle in Egypt is about freedom and equality, eliminating the culture of state and military impunity and building a country that doesn’t dwarf its people’s aspirations or the country’s centrality in the Arab world for the benefit of the United States.

The death of his cousin has only hardened his resolve to stay in the street until those changes come about. “Gika was just a boy, and still, there is no freedom, bread or social justice,” Samy says.

Samy doesn’t trust Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party –  the post revolution political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood – and believes they are only interested in governing for its base supporters. Yet overshadowing his frustration is the economic crisis. “We need national projects to build our economy and make Egypt a great country again, not the IMF telling us what to do, like under Mubarak,” he contends, while putting his sense of nationalism front and center.

The likely elimination of food and fuel subsidies that come with an IMF bailout package will only turn the mounting political discontent into mass food riots that, Samy predicts, will be far more violent and engulf much more of the country.

Throughout our conversation, Samy puts calls into the corporate management, now advocating on my behalf while not selling out his colleague, in a bid to try and resolve my phone problems. Still, in the end, the company won’t budge. And while we part as friends, understanding a great deal more about each other, there is no resolution to the conflict that brought me here. Buying the correct phone package at a nearby store, I take another convoluted tax ride back to Tahrir’s fringes, where the clashes rage on.

Jesse Rosenfeld is a Canadian journalist based between Ramallah, Tel Aviv and Cairo. Covering politics, war and social upheaval, he has published with The NationThe GuardianThe Irish TimesLe Monde DiplomatiqueThe National and The Toronto Star, among others. He tweets at @jrosyfield.

Read more:
Block by block, Egyptians fight their past for a new future

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  • COMMENTS

    1. rsgengland

      Thanks for an interesting article on Egypt in +972.
      What happens in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon impacts directly on Israel.
      Without understanding and appreciating what is going on in those countries, it is not possible to have a complete picture on Israels thinking.
      Anyone looking at the breakdownin civil society in Israels neighbours,
      has to understand the uncertainty it creates among the general Israeli public.
      There are no leaders, legitimate or otherwise in the area, that are secure and stable enough to guarantee any form of peacemaking at present.

      Reply to Comment
      • Peacemaking? Just freeze the settlements and bring IDF soldiers killing Bank Palestinians with no objective cause to account. This has nothing to do with making a Palestinian State overnight.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          You mean send the army to go fight Jews who want to build in their homeland while allowing them to get lynched by Palestinians. Sounds wonderful.

          Reply to Comment
          • “send the army to go fight Jews who want to build in their homeland” : Once again, your wording shows intent to absorb the Bank.

            There is a difference between expulsion and freezing settlements. Yes, if Israeli citizens violate Israeli law and continue to build, the army would have to intervene, upholding the rule of law. Under any viable Two State agreement some settlers would have to leave their “homeland.” You here indicate this as unacceptable.

            As usual, you ignore the Palestinian deaths and maimings, implying they are of no importance at all.

            Reply to Comment
    2. The prior regime pulled police off the streets in the hope that crime would deflate protests. Unexpectedly, block patrols were organized by protesters, actually enhancing the organization of further large scale resistence.

      The police aren’t going to be pulled out this time, and the harder side of the Brotherhood is as well organized as anyone else on the streets.

      Economic justice takes decades, social justice of a lesser sort takes years. Economic collapse is quite fast. If a national unity government cannot somewhat dismantle the protests, what is stop the latter from happening?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Boxthorn

      I don’t understand. Every lefty around the world said that the Arab Spring was just so glorious. Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat with a growing population? No problem. Facebook! Google!

      Could 972 be completely wrong about the Arab world? Impossible!

      A country with a tourist industry? Cover up what the tourists want to see. What a great idea! Beaches? Cover the people on them up too!

      Hire a Ph.D. metallurgist devoted to magic as your President. That’ll show those descendants of apes and pigs.

      At least he’s not that bad old Mubarak who kept things going.

      Morsi is better than Mubarak. and Mubarak is better than Sadat and the rest of those generals and those generals are better than fat King Farouk.

      Or is it the other way around? Impossible. Every left wing analysis show that Farouk was terrible and that Morsi is so much better.

      I just can’t understand how come Gazans aren’t sneaking out to join the wonderful wonderfulness that is the Arab Spring.

      Long live the glorious and incredibly successful Arab Spring!

      Reply to Comment
    4. i_like_ike52

      Samy wants Egypt to be “great” and he doesn’t want it to do what the IMF wants it to do. Well, what DOES the IMF want? It wants Egypt to be well-run country on a sound financial basis. How the heck does Samy expect Egypt to be “geat” without a well-run, financially sound country? Yes, bread subsidies are a signficant matter….much of the population needs cheap food. But is subsidizing bread the best way to do this. Huge amounts of money are involved and massive waste. Why subsidize wealthy peoples’ bread? I once read that Egyptian farmers feed subsidized bread to their animals because it is cheaper than animal feed. Much bread is wasted since it is so cheap, people throw away bread that is a day old simply because it is not super fresh, even though it is still edible.
      Samy subscribes to the Leftist view that capitaism is opposed to what ‘the people’ want. Nasser tried to make Egypt ‘great’ by using Fascist and Marist-style socialist ecnomics and gargantuan projects like the Aswan Dam plus armed confrontation with Israel and other Arab countries to give Egyptians “pride’ but all he did was bring the country defeat and bankruptcy. Is Samy suggesting a return to the failed Egyptian policies of the past?

      Reply to Comment
    5. The Trespasser

      Certain societies seem to be inherently incapable of “democracy”, which is their “democratic” right of course.

      >subscribes to the Leftist view that capitaism is opposed to what ‘the people’ want.

      Yeah. “The people”.
      It’s unclear thought, how an uneducated and illiterate bunch could possibly understand what exactly they “want” and what consequences the fulfillment of their desires might have.

      Reply to Comment
    6. andrew r

      “Certain societies seem to be inherently incapable of “democracy”, which is their “democratic” right of course.”

      A classically racist justification for foreign-backed dictatorships. This is exactly what the British argued about Bahrain. Just because the people who want democracy are shot at or put in jail doesn’t mean they’re incapable of it.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Charles-Jerusalem

      A bit more patience, and the Israeli analysis on the future of Egyptian democraty will turn being correct.
      a few years of more mess and the army will justify that thank you, they were very patient but they will re-take power.

      Reply to Comment

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