Egypt: Year Zero

02/25/2011 05:34 pm 17:34:30 | Updated May 25, 2011

This is where it all started and where, more than ever, it is all still happening. Imagine a vast square the size of Times Square In New York. Tanks sit at the mouth of each of the streets leading into the square. Children have climbed up on the tanks and are talking with the soldiers. The joyful crowd of half a million people, maybe more, includes young women, still girls really, with bared heads, who mingle with boys whose faces are painted in the three colors of the Egyptian flag. Pennants flutter overhead. Horns and trumpets sound. Fireworks burst in the sky. Banners pay homage to "martyrs," to "the disappeared," or, simply, to "Egypt". Not once during the evening do I spot an anti-western slogan. There is the flavor of a county fair or a pregame rally for a football team. One of my group is even mistaken for a Portuguese soccer coach, hoisted onto a makeshift rostrum, and asked to say a few words. "Long live Tahrir!" he says. "You took Tahrir the way France took the Bastille. And here in Tahrir you have carried out the first revolution of the 21st century." In response, the crowd roars, a clamorous sound that has risen from this Cairo-style Commune in Tahrir Square for three weeks now, almost without interruption. The Tahrir movement is sometimes faulted for having neither a program nor a leader, but it appears that Tahrir is the program and the people, as Sartre would say, their own leader.

The next day. Tahrir Square, in front of the museum that Mubarak's goons tried to loot but that was soon secured by a citizens' brigade. There I meet Aalam Wassef, whom I encountered in Paris 20 years ago but have not seen since. At 40, he still has the same youthful appearance, the same interest in literature and philosophy. But in the two decades that have elapsed since then he has also become one of those Internet aces who lit the fuse of democratic powder that has brought us, today, to the heroic Libyan insurrection. Aalam's contribution was simple but decisive. In January 2007 he bought the search term "Mubarak" and set things up so that every time a Web searcher anywhere in the world typed in the name of the tyrant he or she would get a result ridiculing Mubarak. He launched an operation known as "President Mubarak, you've got mail!" in which Web users posted thousands of messages, angry and funny, that Aalam converted into Google mini-ads. On YouTube, under the now-legendary pseudonym of Ahmad Sherif, he posted videos that were seen by millions of Egyptians. The U.S. embassy ended up contacting him, and the Amn el Dawla, the regime's secret police, put him under surveillance. But by then the real revolution--the revolution of a people who had discovered that the emperor had no clothes--had been unleashed.

A friend's birthday party in the artificial city of Beverly Hills, an hour by car from Cairo in the middle of the desert. I came to the party with the hope of meeting another Web wonder, Abdelkarim Mardini, who, in the first days of the uprising, when the government blocked the Internet, is said to have found a way around the firewall. "It's true," he said casually, without a tinge of gloating in his tone. "I didn't do it by myself, of course. But it's true that during the night of January 27-28 a group of us brainstormed how to get around the Web police. That night, from Zurich, where I was, from California, where Google is headquartered, and, of course, from Egypt, there emerged the simple idea of combining voice and the Internet." Basically, Mardini set up three telephone landlines--in the United States, Italy, and, it appears, Bahrain. People called those numbers to record short messages that provided, among other things, the date, time, and agenda of demonstrations. The messages could be heard by calling the same numbers or, when possible, by visiting the site "speak2tweet." From my youthful education in the school of Louis Althusser I have retained a healthy mistrust for historical explanations based on technology and technical change. But all the same ... How many of the young people whom I saw in Tahrir Square last night were roused to action because of people like Mardini? How many, through them, summoned the courage to join this peaceful revolt? And why not give credit to those social networks, led by Twitter, that appear to have encouraged the people of Cairo to risk death to defend their freedom?

Remember Farouk Hosni, the culture minister that Mubarak tried to install as the head of UNESCO right after he had promised to burn, with his own hands, any book in Hebrew that might have escaped the notice of the police and still remained in the library of Alexandria? I am in the Estoril restaurant, just off Kasr El Nil Street, sitting with someone in an excellent position to explain the cultural damage inflicted by this sort of dictatorship. Karima Mansour is a dancer and choreographer. She has had the courage and the talent--for example, in performances staged in Lisbon where she shared the stage with a nude man--to stray from the role of the traditional oriental dancer. Except that under the Mubarak regime she was the object of a secular fatwa that banned her from working. That fatwa, which took the form of a ministerial order, was enforced by Walid Aouni, dance director at the Cairo opera. Persecution. Harassment. Vexation. Humiliation. Until January 25, the day the revolution broke out. Karima was in Berne that day, rehearsing for a show. She broke that engagement to come back here, to Tahrir Square, to join her comrades and family. Today, Karima can speak. She can say anything she wants. And right now she has a lot to say about the reign of a literate but power-drunk purloiner of antiquities, persecutor of open minds and blogs, who required the credulity of the West to be taken seriously even for a moment. I should add that the new Egyptian judicial authorities have opened a case against Hosni for theft. He is not allowed to leave Egypt.

I believe that women's place in social movements is a faithful reflection of their standing in the democracy that cradles those movements. Here in Egypt I have plenty of examples. Karima, for one. The young women in Tahrir Square. Nada Mobarak, founder of a nongovernmental organization known as "The Beacon," whom I met in my hotel on a day when the hotel's employees had gone on strike to protest their low salaries, which average €50 a month. Nada Doraid Mohamed, a Muslim, who rushed back from the United States. Magy Mahrous, a Coptic, who spent the last few years working in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur, and who has returned determined to build schools in the forgotten rural areas of Upper Egypt. Syada Greiss, their senior, who represented the Al Moqatam district in parliament, who believes that the revolution must offer some dignity to the scavengers in her constituency who live and die amid the refuse of the vast city. The writer Ayyam Sureau, American by birth and French by education, who, with her mother, Habiba, epitomize the refinement of cosmopolitan Egypt, and who is active in the movement. Or, to cite one more example, Nawal El Saadawi, with her grand white mane, who I saw dancing like a girl on the day of the garden party in Beverly Hills. Nawal El Saadawi, a mixture of France's two Simones, Veil and de Beauvoir, talks of her years in the feminist struggle and of her presidential campaign five years ago, when Mubarak's henchmen would break up her meetings. But she also talks of the here and now, of the formation of an eight-member, all-male commission responsible for planning a new constitution. It seems that no one thought of including on the commission even one member of the second sex, which only reinforces her determination to make women's voices heard.

I said I had heard not one anti-western slogan. But what about anti-Israel? I am at a café called Nights of Happiness in the working neighborhood of Sayyeda Zenab. I am not quite sure how this came about, but the owner, 30-year-old Sayed, like so many of Cairo's millions of inhabitants, had been thinking out loud about the relative merits of two possible successors to Mubarak: the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, and the former inspector of Iran's nuclear facilities, Mohammed El Baradei. He was telling me about a nearby mosque, built on the ruins of a Christian church that, in turn, had risen from the foundations of a temple of Isis. All of the sudden he brings up the question of Israel and the West's fear of seeing a new regime repudiate the peace treaty signed by Sadat. "It was Mubarak who sold you that load," he laughs. "To justify his repression, he told you we were crazy savages whose only goal, after he was gone, would be to trash the treaty. That wasn't very nice for us, because we aren't rabid dogs. And it wasn't nice for Israel, either, which shouldn't have to live with the anxiety. But the most important thing is that it is not true. Because we were born with that treaty and grew up with it. It's part of ..." He gestures at the cheap plastic tables and chairs that, as soon as the sun comes out, he arranges on his little concrete terrace. "The treaty is part of the furniture. Why would I want to get rid of it?" I do not pretend that Egyptian anti-Semitism--which, at the time of my previous trip a year ago, was on ample display in the windows of bookstores that were unabashedly selling The Protocols of the Elders of Zion--has been dissolved by Twitter and Facebook. But I do believe that Tahrir represents an accelerated process of political maturation that has had the effect, among other things, of cooling and beginning to contain Egyptian anti-Semitism in both its official and popular forms.

The same political maturation, in another form, I encounter in a wonderful man, Ahmed Bayoumi, a plumber by trade, who, in his time off, used to pour oil into water to observe the shapes it would take. He ended up making an art of his hobby. His work, photographed with a cellular phone, is now on display in a Cairo gallery. There are two types of people, he tells me, seated on a folding chair in front of his house on a narrow, unpaved street at the very end of one of Cairo neighborhoods where people live on less than two dollars a day. "There are those who feel that all this has gone on long enough, that we got what we wanted with Mubarak's downfall and that we have to get back to work. And then there are those who believe that even though we've cut off the head, the body is still there." Including in the conversation his neighbor, a bare-headed woman working on a pot of stuffed vegetables, he adds: "The money, for example--all that money they stole that is sleeping in your banks. Wait a while before you give it back to us; wait until we've elected a president worthy of the title. Because the ones who have left Egypt had already eaten their fill, whereas those who've stayed behind to take care of things in the interim, they're still hungry and won't be shy about dipping their hands into the pot. Keep the money for now."

The central problem is indeed corruption. The facts laid out for me by Ahmed Elsayed Elnaggar, the elegant head of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies, which occupies the 11th floor of the legendary daily, Al-Ahram, are astonishing, both in their numbers--tens of billions of dollars siphoned off, over 30 years, by Mubarak and his acolytes--but perhaps even more in the sophistication of the system of double, triple, and quadruple national bookkeeping developed by the regime, a system that Elnaggar has devoted himself to unraveling. "Here's one example," he says. "The estimate of the working-age population was changed, without any apparent justification, from 32 to 23 million in order to mask the extent of unemployment. And another example." Here he hands me a stack of bills that a judge had sequestered for five years and that he had just recovered this morning, in anticipation of our interview. "The system for diverting funds developed right here, by the management of this newspaper." With a smile of victory and joy on his face, he concluded: "Up until now I was the one who was afraid, even though"--he extended a hand that bore no wedding ring--"not being married and having no children I could resist intimidation, but them..." He glanced in the direction of the floors below and above us. "Now they're the ones who are going to have to account for themselves. And, you see, that's how fear has moved from one camp to the other." Egypt in the year zero. The dizziness of a democracy that is feeling its way toward new practices and procedures. Like it or not, truth and law are on the march.

Of course, in the course of an assignment like this one, one inevitably encounters disappointments. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, for example. I had not seen him since the day in Sarajevo when, as secretary-general of the United Nations, he was pelted with tomatoes by a crowd fed up with his policy of appeasement. But here, in his comfortable apartment on El Nil Avenue, the man's mediocrity IS even more dismaying. He is lively, at least, and retains all his intellectual faculties. He SEEMS almost happy to have been given the opportunity to revisit our encounters in Bosnia years ago. But of the young people in Tahrir Square he can only grumble that they "don't know what they want" and don't know "where they're going." About the wind of democracy that is sweeping his country he can only repeat, over and over, that it "will come at a high cost" and that no one "is thinking about that." On the subject of the early demonstrations he can focus only on the fact that, when the headquarters of Mubarak's party was burned, his own office in the same building was burned as well. About Iran, which HAS just stationed two warships at the entrance to the Suez Canal, as if to test the new Egyptian government, this 90-year-old man who was one of the architects of the peace treaty with Israel, loses his cool completely and shouts, in his perfect French, that he doesn't see why Netanyahu should have the right to an atomic bomb and not Ahmadinejad. No comment...

There are strange moments, as well, when one feels trapped inside a bad thriller by Le Carré. Ali, for example. I will simply call him Ali, so as not to embarrass the friend who introduced me to him. What was the message that this rich man, linked by family to a large tourism business, wanted to convey when he told me that it was the Muslim Brotherhood (he had seen and recognized them, he said) who, on the night of January 27, had defended the square by throwing stones at a gang of Mubarak's thugs mounted on camels? Why this tortured theory, built on the fact that, of the 365 martyrs, we are repeatedly shown the same 25 faces, and that, the Brotherhood being sworn to secrecy and anonymous martyrdom, the other 340 martyrs must be members of the Brotherhood? And who exactly is this mysterious "Zayed" whom Ali describes as a member of parliament from the majority party, who supposedly paid the notorious thugs from his own pocket before being arrested by a group of vigilant soldiers who, thanks to a tip from a defecting thug, had learned that Zayed was preparing to repeat the camel operation the following Thursday? Did Ali want to give me the idea that the Brotherhood was working behind the scenes and that only the virtue of the army could stop them? Was this a rehashing of Mubarak's trick of legitimizing the dictatorship by exaggerating the danger of the radical Islamist wave?

Sometimes one gets the impression that one has been thrown to the wolves. That's how I felt late this afternoon in the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood on El Malek El Saleh Street. I am sitting across from Saad Al-Hoseiny, a former member of parliament who was imprisoned on January 28 and then set free with thousands of common criminals whom Mubarak released to sow fear throughout the city. Other than his height and girth, what you notice first about Al-Hoseiny are the broken fingers and the absence of fingernails--souvenirs of time spent with the Egyptian police who, by the way, have probably not changed that much. Indeed, during the interview, Al-Hoseiny soft-peddles. He tells me that the Brotherhood represents no more than 15 percent of the population. He assures me that it will not present a presidential candidate in the elections six months from now. He swears before all gods that, for the time being at least, the Brotherhood has no agenda other than freedom, dignity, and justice. But, with a sly look, he adds that "Egypt's problems" are too "enormous" for the modest Brotherhood to shoulder by itself. And then, with his expression hardening, he turns to the other agenda, the real one, the one the Brotherhood has nursed along since 1928--including a long period of of ideological alliance with the Nazis--the agenda that its Palestinian branch is applying in Gaza. About that agenda Al-Hoseiny says that "time is long; we have plenty of time." At the end of the interview, he asks me whether, given my name, I might not be a little bit Jewish. When I respond that I am indeed Jewish, he gives me a look both confused and amazed, a look that chills the blood in my veins.

And then there are the meetings that leave you uneasy. I am with France's ambassador to Egypt. With us is a brilliant and well-informed journalist of Moroccan origin, as well as Amir Salem, an admirable person, a lawyer and defender of human rights. But also in the room is someone named Mounir Abd El Nour to whom I take an immediate dislike. I learn that he has just been named minister of tourism, replacing the former minister, whom the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has just put out to pasture by sending him to prison for corruption. I understand that Abd El Nour is, like his predecessor, a powerful businessman, recently associated with the Africa Middle East Petroleum Company, which was implicated in the corruption scandals surrounding Saddam Hussein's oil exports. I also understand that he, a former head of the very secular Wafd party, sees no reason whatsoever why the Muslim Brotherhood should not take part in the ongoing democratic process. Soon enough the moment comes when, in the midst of a calm discussion of the place of secularism in Islam, he stops in mid-sentence and points at me threateningly with his index finger: "Make no mistake," he says, "the suffering of the Palestinian people is an open wound in the side of every Egyptian." And when, surprised by the nonsequitur, I ask him whether the suffering of Libyans being massacred by Qaddafi as we speak is not also an open wound, he flushes crimson as if on the verge of losing his temper, squeezes his smartphone so hard I think it will snap, and lashes back: "You can't compare a massacre among brothers with the permanent scandal that is the occupation of Palestine." Stories of corruption, militarism, an attitude of indulgence toward Islamism, and now this: a double standard so easily borne. At that moment, Egypt's new minister of tourism seemed to me to be the very face of the obstacles facing those who would build a new Egyptian republic.

The next day, in Alexandria and on the Libyan border, I met honorable Egyptians who saw in Qaddafi the shame of the Arab world. Back in Cairo, I heard, at Al-Azhar University, a seat of spirituality and learning, the adviser to Grand Imam El-Tayyeb declare his opposition to the participation of the Brotherhood in the government. I see again the activists of Tahrir and have a hard time imagining how they would be able to move from their liberal and libertarian aspirations, from their passion for the law and free speech, from the feeling of having lit the fuse that is now dynamiting the insane regime in Tripoli, to acceptance of the Sharia. But the truth is that Egypt is in a race against time, and one can only hope that the electoral calendar will allow it to win that race. Although I have a hard time believing in a regression into Islamism, it remains a possibility. As does a civilian-military alliance--more in the style of Vladimir Putin than of the Iranian revolution--in which the army of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak will once again take control and offer to the Arab world the example of a revolution frozen into a constitutionalized autocracy. On the other hand, we might just have the real thing, an inspiring thing that I have watched unfolding, the uncertain and magnificent struggle toward democracy. For the moment, that is where things stand.
 
 Editor's note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Nada Doraid was Christian Coptic. She is Muslim.