Egypt on the edge

Wendell Steavenson writes: It was Friday today, and Tahrir Square was packed. It was in a mix of every mood I have seen it in over the past ten months: politically focussed, “The people want to topple the Marshal!”; carnival-like, with face painters and food stalls; determined, with tents and supplies and field hospitals; organized, with volunteers checking bags and I.D.s at the entrances; thuggish, with plenty of knots of young kids from poor neighborhoods; and creative: a new sign had been erected for Mohamed Mahmoud Street, renaming it, “The Street of the Eyes of Freedom”—a reference to the many who had lost their eyesight from police birdshot.

The army has built a wall out of concrete blocks on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Doctors in white coats stand on top, as a volunteer cease-fire line. In the streets and alleys leading up to the charred stretch where the tear gas and rocks rained over between protesters and police for five days, protesters now man barbed-wire barricades, stopping kids and passersby from coming too close and provoking the authorities. The police have withdrawn; the army has replaced them, and there is a truce. But the wall that separates the crowds on Tahrir from the Military Council is actually a gulf of generation, perception, and culture. The violence may have stopped for the moment, but the clarion call for a transfer to civilian rule has not.

The Military Council is laboring under the belief that they are protecting the state of Egypt. The protesters on Tahrir see that they are protecting only the regime. Yesterday, I went to see Hossan Baghat, who runs the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an N.G.O. Baghat listed the litany of human-rights abuses, military trials, the harassment of bloggers and journalists, the interference of state and private media, the persecution of the human rights community (an investigation has been opened into the foreign funding of N.G.O.s in Egypt; he was expecting a legal summons imminently before the Square blew up again). We talked about the ongoing “bogus charges” leveled at those arrested over the past few days; the American Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, held for twelve hours, her arm broken and badly groped; and worried about my friend Jehane Noujaim, a documentary filmmaker who has since been released.

He said he had recently seen the Clint Eastwood biopic about J. Edgar Hoover. “It’s almost identical!” He told me wryly. “Someone who thinks, ‘Only I am patriotic,’ that enemies within are undermining the country, and that citizens don’t have all the information that they have—now they may be against them, but one day they will be grateful. In their minds, they are protecting Egypt from outsiders.”

This mindset was illustrated in a press conference yesterday, when generals from the Military Council denied any responsibility for the recent violence or mismanagement of the transitional political process. “Egypt is not Tahrir Square,” Major General Mukhtar el-Mallah declared. “We will not relinquish power because of a slogan-chanting crowd.” Ignoring the hundreds of thousands on the square and appealing to the “silent majority” is the same mistake Mubarak made. Then they repeated the old shibboleth about third parties and foreign agendas agitating trouble to weaken Egypt, and announced a new Prime Minister, a seventy-eight-year-old former Prime Minister under Mubarak, a dinosaur with dyed black hair hauled out of retirement. The Square shrugged and rolled its eyes.

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