The distant shouts of a female voice rang louder and louder in my ear: “A complete revolution or nothing at all!” I turned around and caught my first glimpse of a young woman of average height, who was outsized by her vocal powers. I was taken aback, impressed, and snapped an image there and then of Mahienour el-Massry — or Mahie, as she is known amongst her circles.
That day was Friday 27 May 2011, in a protest march through Alexandria’s Port Said Street on the Second Friday of Rage. The January 25 Revolution had opened up a world of endless possibilities, and people took to the streets to demand them. Many protests, vigils and revolutionary exhibitions later, I would gradually become more acquainted with a remarkable human being that I have come to consider a friend, inspiration and the conscience of Alexandria.
In a city where you can count the key activists on your fingers, Mahienour (an activist and a lawyer) had immense influence on revolutionary Alexandria. As human rights lawyer Marianne Sedhom remarks, “Mahienour’s loud voice in a small city allowed her to have a greater impact, shape the debate, and inspire many.”
Mahienour, along with seven other activists, is currently serving a two-year sentence for defying the Protest Law, which they were protesting on the day of the retrial of the Khaled Saeed case. Saeed, as you may well know, was killed by the police on June 6, 2010. Public anger against his death by torture initiated the rapid countdown to the 2011 uprising.
Ironically, it was this month four years ago, during the first Khaled Saeed protest, when Mahienour pulled off one of the most daring feats of bravery seen yet. Central security forces at the Cleopatra Hamamat tram station (the site of the protest) were gradually fencing in Mahienour, along with twenty protestors. She was increasingly worried about the safety of protestors arriving from the Corniche and Port Said Street, who were bound to get trapped and arrested.
In a “Run Lola Run” moment, Mahienour took the initiative and ran shouting a slogan in reference to Saeed’s death, and protestors who had arrived late, were lost, or trapped by the security forces, just joined her, running after her through the street, as she called on residents and workers in the area to join in. Many did. As friend Kholoud Said Amer recalls, “We just ran behind her and chanted what she was chanting, and in two minutes, after we were 20, we ended up being a force of 300. The biggest protest until then.”
The security forces were knocked off guard and, rather than arrests, all they could do was prevent the protesters from entering Medhat Seif al-Yazal Khalifa Street — where Saeed had died earlier that month. Mahienour, who was brutalized two years earlier (July 2008) at a police station (as a result of her support for the April 6 Youth Movement’s activities) was clearly on track, and back with a vengeance. She would play a key role in the succession of protest events leading up to the January 25, 2011 Revolution, and beyond.
This week marks the infamous bread riots that rocked Egypt in 1977, and was arguably a precursor to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. The New York Times ran the story on the riots with this peculiar paragraph:
“The riots started Tuesday in Alexandria, which has a reputation for left-wing militance, when thousands took to the streets to protest a Government announcement increasing the price of many staple foods and other basic consumer goods by 50 to 100 percent while giving an across-the-board wage increase of 22 percent. The riots spread to Cairo and its suburb of Helwan”
What’s unusual about the NYT piece is that it’s one of the few then contemporary accounts, though brief, to accurately name the geographical spark of the riot and label its perceived political profile.
It’s often baffling as to why a city that sparked off the riots and known for its “left-wing militance” could not garner any interest from then reporters – Egyptian or foreign – to investigate further, but basically recycle from their Cairo hotels and stations the same news coming out of Alexandria, such as the burning of the historical Alexandria Stock Exchange. There is a scarcity of interviews or even later research on what made Alexandria a tinderbox on a local level in January 1977. Unfortunately, all of Egypt’s problems, like today, are grouped into a national narrative, rather than seeking out what unique factors existed in each area.
This information vacuum has been one of the casualties of centralisation. The problem of Centralisation is not just about power and resources shifting to the capital, but it also undermines the media presence and research interest in the cities and towns affected. It gutters a large city like Alexandria in reducing the incentive for foreign correspondents to have been present in Alexandria at the time of the riots. As a researcher on Alexandria myself, this forces one to rely on oral interviews, which is a credible approach no doubt, but one would expect that a large event such as this to leave better accounts than what is available today.
Furthermore, 1977 also signposts that not much has changed today, besides the obvious political and socio-economic dimension; For a city of over four million, Alexandria is yet to acquire locally robust media organisations and a publishing industry. There is Egypt, and then there is “Egypts”, all fighting their unique yet complementary battles.
Sherif Farag is “one of the greatest persons you can meet” tweeted prominent Alexandrian activist Mahienour al-Masry. Sherif is a Master’s student and assistant lecturer at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. He is also one of the most underrated activists you will ever meet in the coastal city. Following his vocal opposition to the protest law, his life took a turn for the worse when the infamous late-night police raid occurred.
At 2.30 am on Sunday, November 24, a large security force of over 20 heavily armed men entered Sherif’s family apartment in Sidi Bishr, Alexandria. Masked security forces occupied the staircase of the building. Security convoys blocked the street. And all this deployment was to arrest a rising academic and advocate for the rights of teaching assistants, for architectural standards and heritage preservation.
The travesty did not end there, however. Taken to the security directorate in Smouha, in the presence of his lawyers, the charges leveled at Sherif were “joining a banned group” — presumably the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sherif is not a member of, nor affiliated with in any way.
Realizing that such a charge could prove difficult to stick on Sherif, still more trumped-up charges were thrown at him. At 10 pm that same night he was charged with campaigning to promote chaos, mobilizing crowds, and using violence.
The next day he was charged with planning and killing peaceful demonstrators, breaking cars and — just to make sure that the ludicrousness of the whole case was sealed — robbing a bank.
Since November 28, Sherif has been in Hadara Prison pending investigations. On December 8 his incarceration was renewed for another 15 days, despite the fact that there is no evidence or witnesses to incriminate him. Throughout this period, there have been daily protests and petitions demanding his release.
Sherif’s academic activism was in many ways a success story of the January 25 revolution. As his friend Ahmed Hassan noted: “Sherif’s positive attitude, motivation and inspirational effect on people guaranteed him a fixed place in the emerging academic and cultural groups in Alexandria. His campaigning for the rights of teaching assistants was integral to the collective effort that helped champion the cause of teaching assistants throughout Egyptian universities. This was also followed by his rise to sit on the advisory committee of the Ministry of Higher Education in order to deliver our demands to the decision makers.”
But it was Sherif’s presence on the street that made him familiar to the public, and Alexandrians in particular. He led peaceful demonstrations to protest against Alexandria’s real-estate mafia and its destruction of the city’s heritage. He spoke against the dangerous proliferation of tens of thousands of buildings that violate basic safety standards and consequently lead to the frequent tragedy of the city’s collapsing buildings.
Sherif was part of a growing swathe of Alexandrian activists who increasingly shared the view that Cairo’s centralized decision-making was the main source of Alexandria’s problems — a situation that must be rectified.
It was tacitly understood among Alexandria’s civil society scene that heritage and building issues were critical concerns shared by all groups. Facebook groups and pages such as Alexandria Scholars, Alex Agenda and Radio Tram united behind the Save Alexandria initiative. This initiative, co-founded by Sherif, was primarily aimed at the preservation of the city’s architectural heritage. But it has become a political platform for activism in Alexandria.
The initiative presents itself as a pressure group that works at ensuring Alexandrians’ “right to their city” — often through organizing protests. “Save Alexandria’s” Facebook page has been used to publicize protests and mobilize people to take part. Naturally, the prominence of this initiative, along with Sherif’s university activism, put him on state security’s radar.
Sherif took a sophisticated and multi-faceted approach to his activism that ranged from protest vigils, media interviews, to sitting down with officials to try to work out a solution to the city’s problems.
When Sherif spoke of the city’s problems, it was articulated with such eloquence and succinctness that it was bound to disturb those in power. I recall one scene last year in which Sherif, myself, and his friend Ahmed were invited to speak with the governor at a roundtable meeting at the engineers’ club overlooking the Mediterranean. We were the youngest ones in a room full of sycophantic public officials and aging, self-obsessed “call-me-doctor” academics. They seemed to have trouble accepting our presence at such a high profile meeting. Nevertheless, Sherif spoke loudly and eloquently of the city and the people’s problems.
“You are standing on Fouad Street, one of the oldest [continually used] streets in history,” Sheirf told me once during a protest. Passionate about saving Alexandria’s heritage, he laments today’s building culture, and how nobody teaches or learns architecture properly: “Every building that rises looks like the other,” he told me.
Noha Mansour, who got engaged to Sherif in August, told me, “Sherif is the type of person who values freedom of speech and action deeply. He never feels ashamed to speak his mind and express his opinions. I feel it was his outspoken opposition to the recent protest law that finally made the authorities arrest him.”
Sherif is due to submit his Master’s thesis this month. He sent this note from prison to be added to the opening page of his dissertation:
This letter was written from my cell, where injustice and aggression abounds, I write these points in the hope that higher education in Egypt will someday be in a better position — though it never will be as long as universities are not liberated from the security [regime’s] iron fist and power. I have worked over two years and a half in an attempt to improve the situation of Egyptian universities after the great 25 January 2011 Revolution. I have played a part in contributing to the increase of salaries of faculty members and have been at the forefront as a member of the Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Higher Education to focus on reforming how universities are regulated. Yet people so retarded [in the security sector] have continued to hamper our progress [in the cause of higher education]. If my imprisonment is a result of my suffering to better education, then no fault can be found with that. God Alone is sufficient for me, as He is the best disposer of affairs for me.
Sherif, locked up in a prison cell, has come to represent the “two Egypts” in conflict. One is bland, unimaginative, archaic, and brutal. And then there is Sherif Farag, along with many others now under arrest, who epitomize a passion, fearlessness, and hope to build a better tomorrow.
Imprisoning Sherif Farag is akin to imprisoning the dream of a better Egypt. His freedom is a necessity.
It is an irony that former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s trial – which highlighted the deep divisions in Egyptian society – was held on the country’s Valentine’s Day.
The only thing Morsi and his 14 co-defendants from the Muslim Brotherhood had in common with the military-backed interim government was the desire by both sides to use the trial as a theatre to address the Egyptian public by pushing their own agendas and accusations.
Morsi and the Brotherhood wasted no time in seeking to embolden their domestic base and tell the rest of the nation that the Brotherhood was not going away.
To undercut Morsi’s predictable grandstanding, state TV muted the sound. “I am here by force and against my will. The coup is a crime and treason” shouted Morsi, who set the tone for the non-cooperative atmosphere.
For the prosecutors, the goal was to send a signal to the wider Egyptian public about who is in control and to parade Morsi and his colleagues before the court as a form of political emasculation.
The charges against Morsi are in fact legitimate – they were filed on 5 December 2012 by human rights activists after the Brotherhood stormed a sit-in outside the presidential palace.
The actions of the Brotherhood sparked clashes that resulted in the deaths of ten protestors.
Even the case on its own skews the course of justice when there is a lack of enquiry into the security debacle and the Brotherhood chain of command on that day.
But legitimate charges do not necessarily lead to a legitimate trial.
Nor has the state all of a sudden developed a desire to see justice take its place for Egypt’s innumerable victims.
As the veteran blogger The Big Pharaoh tweeted “Irony = Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood cadets tortured people at the presidential palace gates. Police regularly torture people yet they’re securing Morsi’s Trial today!”.
My presentation is at 10.30am, 15/Aug/2013, at the Professorial Board Room, The Quadrangle.
Redefining Alexandria: The Liberal, Salafi, and Muslim Brotherhood Struggle Over the Public Space (conference abstract)
This study seeks to understand the primacy of politics in the public space and the rise of a revolutionary space in Egypt’s second largest city of Alexandria. The city has experienced a long history of political struggles to brand the city in which the state led the destruction of the political by manipulating people and places and injecting external meaning rather than allowing a self-creation by Alexandrian society. The 2011 Revolution was in part an unintended consequence of that branding. The dramatic birth of public space and politics in Alexandria was crystallised during the tumultuous but electrifying 18 days of the 2011 uprising – the net result was the birth of an invigorated political public. Individuals of differing ideological persuasions in the coastal city mustered the courage to interrupt their routine activities and break out of their private lives to assemble and produce a public space where freedom and plurality could materialise. However, this human togetherness would be temporal and would make way for Alexandria’s liberals, Salafists and Brotherhood supporters to battle for “control” of the public space and attempt to marginalise the other.
Alexandria is a paradox given that it has swung from a cosmopolitan city in the first half of the twentieth century to the so-called Islamist bastion in the last few decades, to the extent of acting as the base for a resurgence of modern Salafist movements. The past two years have shown each political actor struggling to define the narratives, myths, and vision of the city. Moreover, the past two months in Egypt’s political trajectory have illustrated the unpredictability factor – the decisive character of human affairs – in polarising society and now further entrenching Islamist actors as they perceive an existential threat in the public space as well as further emboldening liberal actors due to the military coming down on their side.
Alexandria is chosen in large part because it is a political laboratory in how a city deals with a fraught process in which a series of contradictory events have happened, far from over, that have only served to illustrate the fragile space of appearance that is dependent and recreated when citizens are together. Yet just as disappointment, sense of injustice, nostalgia, disenchantment, power struggles, are the poisonous fruits of the birth of public space; there comes with it also disintegrative tendencies that can set in with the birth of public space and the events of June and July, Egypt’s people-driven coup, can also have a renewal of another possible beginning.
A brief but long-lasting moment occurred on 19 May 2012, one that would awaken me to the changing realities in our neighborhood since the January 25 Revolution. It was late at night, while standing on my balcony overlooking Cleopatra Square, Alexandria, at the height of the first leg of the 2012 presidential campaign. A scuffle broke out between a group of political campaigners tearing up posters of candidate Amr Mousa, and shop owners and residents who supported Mousa. I ran down to film the incident, only to be tackled by undercover “security” who mistook me as part of the group. One yelled: “We are taking you to army headquarters.” Then a voice was heard: “Leave him, he is one of us” (as in to say, a resident of the area). It turned out to be my barber. In exchange for letting me go, I had to delete the video footage—which I pretended to do but did not.
I took a few steps back in disbelief. Someone I had trusted turned out to apparently be a part of an informal former regime loyalist network. This same group has attacked revolutionary protest marches that pass frequently through this area with bottles and knives. This same Port Said Street was the site of several human chains formed by former regime loyalists in order to prevent revolutionary protests from moving on, often unsuccessfully.
The motives behind their actions soon become apparent.
Stroll some one hundred meters or so, and you end up in Sidi Gaber–Alexandria’s budding Tahrir Square, second only to, or possibly eclipsing, the Qa’id Ibrahim Mosque courtyard–where the military’s fiercely guarded northern command headquarters is based. The barber and his friends see themselves as the first line of defense against encroachment on the “guardians of the nation.” Whether they were paid or not, I could not verify.
Sidi Gaber recently featured fierce protest violence during the pro-Morsi demonstrations on 5 July. Out of the thirty deaths across Egypt, a staggering seventeen occurred in Sidi Gaber alone. This includes the heart-wrenching video of what appeared to be pro-Morsi supporters throwing two teenagers over a ledge, resulting in the death of one of them. A week earlier, American student Andrew Pochter was stabbed to death in the same area.
On 24 January 2011 – a day before the arc of Egyptian history would be altered – the film Microphone was screened. Microphone documents Alexandria’s pre-revolution underground scene of artists and musicians fighting a passive oppression that suffocates their ability to nurture their creativity. Khaled (played byKhaled Abol Naga), who has returned to Egypt from the US, wishes to aid the youth by providing them with a venue and funding for nurturing their talents. In one scene, Khaled is conversing with an official at the state’s cultural office to request support for his project. The dialogue proceeds as follows:
Official: What is this graffiti? Is our role to pollute the walls or to clean them?
Khaled: “Graffiti is an art, the whole world acknowledges it. We have to encourage the youth in their pursuits”
Official: “Is this not transgression against people and properties, and visual pollution?
Khaled: “What about the campaign posters littered around the country’s walls, isn’t that visual pollution as well?”
Official: “No, that is something and this is something else. Election campaigning is part of our democratic process”
To the dumbfound look of Khaled who – frustrated enough by red tape – now is expected to digest a bureaucrat’s talk of “democracy” in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt
Prior to the revolution, Alexandria’s walls were largely Soviet-esqe and barren. Artists who did attempt to paint the walls, like Aya Tarek (featured in the film) and Amr Ali (not the author of this piece), were often stopped by the police or reported by onlookers suspicious of their novel activity. Fatma Hendawy, a curator who started on the street scene before the revolution, notes that one way to circumvent these obstacles was to go through the Goethe Institute to use its diplomatic muscle to define joint German-Egyptian art projects. Yet as Fatma laments, such institutes inadvertently stump your creativity in order to cater to their bilateral agendas.
In the months following the 2011 Revolution, I took to cataloguing the artwork that blossomed and inspired me to believe that the public space was gradually being reclaimed by society. I am no artist; however, I take the position of the “public” and write on the art in the context of the socio-political dynamics and nuances that influence societal perceptions of street art. Specifically, this essay attempts to tell the story of the past two years purely through artwork from the streets of Alexandria. For Cairo, I highly recommend the large collection of Suzee Morayef who, on her blog, offers great analyses on street art that is prolific through the capital’s streets. Also Mona Abaza, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, has penned brilliant pieces on the artistic narration of the revolution.
The 25 January 2011 revolution is nearly two years old, and with every anniversary reflection sets in, and so do the cynical questions thrown at me: “What has the revolution achieved?” and “It brought extremists to power”. It’s as compelling as the French asking themselves the same question in 1791, two years after the start of their bloody revolution. Yet I would be wary to compare Egypt to the bloody track record of the historical titan of revolutions or even to the current mess in Syria. Egypt, for all its faults, is not a country with a history of mass graves.
An insight dawned on me on a train journey from Alexandria to Cairo on the eve of the first anniversary of the revolution, heading to join my friends at Tahrir Square. In my carriage, were about a dozen and a half soldiers who had been recalled from the coastal city to secure parts of Cairo in anticipation of anniversary violence. Sitting next to me was the most senior army officer in that carriage and it had to be one of the most uncomfortable trips in the heated anti-SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) days – my head sporting a beret next to his military cap could not have struck a more vivid contrast. You can imagine I felt awkward, surrounded by soldiers uttering statements like “If it wasn’t for us, the revolution would be dead.” Those ungrateful Egyptians.
In the final fifteen minutes of the journey, I decided to strike up a conversation with the officer. It was a cordial discussion until I asked, “That Tahrir girl who was beaten up by the army last month and her blue bra exposed..” before I could finish, he raised his voice, “That was a lie, do you ever see us wearing running shoes?” and he threw in the stock-in-trade conspiracies surrounding that incident. It was then that many officers came in to listen to the conversation of their commander but did not utter a word in deference to the chain of command. At that moment, I realised something: could I have even dreamed before the revolution of openly posing such a question to an official who, in a different era, might have had me arrested? It all comes down to what defines the post-revolutionary Egyptian public psyche – the vanquishing of fearthat remains the strongest bulwark against the counter-revolution. It is the absence of fear that translates into the protests, sit-ins, strikes, street art and the list goes on.
Cynics interpret every “successful” move by counter-revolutionary generals or the opportunistic Islamists as fait accompli – checkmate rather than check – all without considering the dynamic that such political actors just do not know how to coerce a public that no longer fears authority. I often say a revolution is not an event but a process – there is the 18 days that have come to be the 25 January 2011 Revolution. But then there is the extended revolution that has produced intense protest dynamics surrounding the cabinet killings, Maspero massacre, Mohammed Mahmoud clashes, Port Said soccer massacre, Presidential palace protests and so forth. Enough drama to produce hundreds of Ramadan TV shows.
With this loss of public fear in mind, there is an ominous sign for the Brotherhood and any political actor who wishes to turn back the hands of time. Otto Von Bismarck defined political genius as consisting of “hearing the distant hoofbeat of the horse of history and then leaping to catch the passing horseman by the coattails.” The implication is that Egypt’s aspiring or established political actors who miscalculate or mistime their leap will end up on the wrong side of history while the horse gallops into the sunset leaving them behind. The strength of the Brotherhood and counter-revolutionary actors is illusionary, in that clinging desperately to the practices and models of the former regime only increases their chances of failure – not only missing the ability to shape Egypt’s future, but increasing the structural tensions and further rupturing the sync between ruler and ruled, policymaker and public.
With the economy in a downward spiral, increasing media censorship, growing repression, the Brotherhood’s legitimacy rapidly eroding, the undermining of institutions, and with little being done to address the very factors that sparked the revolution two years ago: 2013 has many surprises in store for Egypt.
One of the most oft-quoted lines two years ago by commentators was the story of when Henry Kissinger once queried the Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai in 1971 for his views on the consequences of the French Revolution. Zhou famously responded, “It is too early to tell”. Some 180 years on (an overstatement but a poignant one) notwithstanding, Zhou’s point was that consequences of revolutions do not unfold until much later. We just might need to give Egypt a little longer than two years.