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Maïa Venturini

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A Visitor in Cairo at the Right Time

Posted: 07/15/2013 6:09 pm

Everything I have heard, seen, and learned in the last nine days makes me feel like I have been in Cairo for months. Events unfold so fast every day, and information circulates in such unexpected ways, often on Facebook before being on TV or radio, that trying to understand the situation as a whole is overwhelming. Add the contrast between what local news outlets report and how western media interpret events, and you are even more lost and hesitant as to whose vision of reality you should trust.

I arrived to Cairo in a euphoric atmosphere fueled by the preparations for the June 30th protest and the campaign of the Tamarod movement, which gathered the signatures of millions of Egyptians. Already, the night of the 29th, residents of El Rehab -- the nice suburb of Cairo where I am hosted -- were out chanting and dancing. Before I knew it, I found myself following my friend's mother to distribute sheets saying "Irhal" ("Get Out") and collect more signatures against Morsi's presidency.

On public transportation, the atmosphere was similar. Although my trips downtown were limited because of safety concerns, I know that what I have seen on each hour-long ride is part of a new Egypt that started taking shape over two years ago. In the ladies' car on the metro, women are talking politics openly and eagerly. On buses, everyone is eavesdropping on similar conversations, louder than the already loud national songs, and ready to march with thousands of flags above their heads.

Rarely in my life have I seen a nation-wide discussion going on everywhere I went at any time of the day. However, it is hard to call this conversation a debate in which people are truly ready to listen to each other. These days, arguing for a middle ground and refusing to entirely support the pro- or the anti-Morsi is quasi impossible. Although they may very well be opposed to Morsi's government, Egyptians currently critical of the violent means employed by some Morsi opponents, and of the more than ambiguous role of the army, are sometimes not far from being seen as "sleeping cells" of the Brotherhood. In other words, you cannot be neutral; you are necessarily put in one bag or another.

Thus, I became more aware of how subtle the line is between calling Morsi's supporters "sheep", "traitors", and "vampires", or Morsi's opponents, enemies of Islam, and finding the killing of individuals acceptable. "When human beings are treated like animals, suggested my friend from Cairo, their death does not shock you all that much anymore." Sadly, the events of the past few days show how much she is right.

The night before Morsi's "arrest", the same night of his interminable speech about legitimacy, I went to one of the main protests with my friend and her mother by the presidential palace (Itahadiya). In contrast with what was presented as Morsi's complete lack of control, the army looked incredibly empowered, as it enjoyed a renewed popularity on the streets. People would stop by to take pictures with soldiers, and cheered at tanks and army helicopters flying over the crowd, following them with dozens of green laser lights. As I walked around, this incredibly large and young gathering of men, women, children, babies, and soccer leagues, singing under a sky lit by improvised fireworks, did not look like much of a "protest." It seemed that people had simply moved from their homes out to the streets for several days, to be together, although ironically many of them would have stood on different sides of the political spectrum a few months earlier.

Unlike other days when I walked the streets of Cairo, people did not pay much attention to me. In the middle of the crowd, I could almost blend in, and some took me for my friend's sister. People see only what they want to see, I thought to myself, and as long as you stand among them and not in front of them, for a few moments who you really are does not really matter. That night, I saw only one other foreigner who, temporarily, looked as invisible as me.

On Wednesday July 3rd, as the army was finally pronouncing the end of Morsi's rule on Egyptian TV, western channels ran headlines announcing a military coup. Interestingly, a whole debate grew around the term chosen to label the event. I received many emails asking me if I was safe, and realized that the thoughts and images we associate with simple words make us look at reality in a completely different way. To me, it seemed that exactly what was planned had taken place; by the end of the army's ultimatum, officers had replaced Morsi on the screens. Yes, the sky did turn into a stage of colorful and loud celebrations for the rest of the night, but to me, the army's actions did not evoke the strength, heroism, or rupture often associated with the concept of "coup." Not much seemed to have changed at all.

Now that violent clashes have been erupting in different cities, it is difficult to see what can end this violence and make people trust the formation of a new government. How can the army look fair and democratic to Morsi's supporters while they are perceived as traitors, and their media outlets, shut down? I wonder how people can feel peaceful enough in their hearts and minds to celebrate the joyful fast of Ramadan. Let's hope that a Ramadan miracle can calm things down.

 
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