Egypt: Beyond the voice of battle

Jack Shenker writes: No matter how many times you witness it, the transformation is still a dizzying one. Kiosks that once vended chocolate and cigarettes, deployed as a gunman’s shield. Shop window shutters framing sugar-sopped cakes or risqué clothes mannequins, now the roughage of a street barricade and clouded in teargas. Rooftops normally barnacled with satellite dishes and humming AC units, today specked with sniper rifle sights. All that familiar stuff, wrenched from an old reality and pressed into use as something different. Two and a half years in, the urban shift from mundane to martial remains as abnormal as ever.

What is happening in Egypt at the moment, and what is being lost? Lives, above all else; hundreds of them — on the streets of Cairo mainly, but also beyond the capital in towns and villages beyond the gaze of the global media. It feels remarkable to have to say this when the sentiment is so obvious, but in the bitter atmosphere of recrimination and accusation that seemingly pervades all Egypt debate at present, it must be said nonetheless: The biggest tragedy of recent weeks is the death of so many, and the maiming of so many more.

Once again, Egyptians are scrawling their names on their arms in a simple effort to avoid being reduced to a number in a morgue, or worse still consigned to the ranks of the uncounted. Amid footage of besieged mosques, robocop machine-gun fire and the dreadful, desperate sight of people throwing themselves off bridges to escape a maze of bullets, it’s that little detail — the writing on the arms — that always chills me the most. Like efforts by volunteers to collect and catalogue the belongings of the dead, some of whom risked their lives to retrieve plastic bags stuffed with scraps of non-life as army bulldozers closed in, writing a name on an arm feels like the most basic affirmation of presence in the face of a state committed to inflicting absence by the bucket load: Absence of heartbeats, absence of humanity, absence of anything but a narrative in which everything is black and white and people are units to be slotted into predrawn political templates. Writing a name on an arm says, devastatingly, “No — I was here too.”

But beyond people, something else is being lost, too — just as those most invested in the old Egypt intended. For me, the most powerful expression of Egypt’s revolution has never been anything tangible, but rather that state of mind when the world seems to tip on its head and bevel with possibility, where the landscape of imagination is recast. I first encountered it on January 25 2011, as I marched alongside a group of anti-Mubarak protesters down the Corniche in central Cairo, and felt a heart-pounding distortion of the air as a line of armed Central Security Forces fanned across the road with their shields up, blocking the path ahead.

Prior to that day, I’d attended countless demonstrations consisting of a few dozen Egyptians shunted to some inconspicuous corner of the street, a tight bristle of political energy marooned in an ocean of black-clad troops. The deployment of the police across the road in front of us was a signal that the next section of this script was due to commence; we would come a stop, engage in some minor scuffling, and then be herded into a harmless protest pen so that the capital could get on with its day. But on this occasion, with reports of mass unrest spreading throughout the city, something was different. Nobody among the marchers slowed, nobody broke ranks, and instead they just kept on going, right towards those shields, chanting and glaring mutinously into the eyes of those that held them — each of whom glanced uneasily around at one another and wondered nervously how to respond. In the end, the troops simply gave way. And as we pushed past them and onto the empty street behind, several protesters broke into a run — or more accurately a skip, a dance, a hodgepodge of hops and jumps — and many began whooping and hollering and even kissing the ground.

Doubtless, more important things were happening elsewhere at that moment, beyond that little carpet of liberated asphalt. Certainly episodes of much greater drama would unfold afterwards, both later that evening, as security forces broke the occupation of Tahrir Square with volleys of tear gas, and three days on, when over 100 police stations were burnt to a cinder and Egypt’s people finally forced Mubarak’s security forces to flee into the night. But for me, that single moment in time — when those around me spontaneously decided to break through the police line and rewrite a mothballed script from the bottom up, that nanosecond where the globe spun, a street was reclaimed and everything in the old universe seemed to stagger, pitch and tumble forward into infinite opportunity — that was revolution, distilled to its purest form. It felt like a tiresome step dance had just gone freestyle as the performers rethought their collective horizons, and careened wildly into a space they had always been told was not for them. It felt like nothing could be the same again. [Continue reading…]

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