For most of this past year, with the help of a Department of Education scholarship, I have been studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo – a school considered to be Egypt’s most elite university and which caters to the country’s upper class.
I live in the distinctly middle-class neighborhood of Dokki, adjacent to the famous Tahrir Square, in a nice apartment with a generous stipend to live on. As such, my experience in revolutionary Cairo has certainly been one of white, middle-class privilege.
It is from this perspective that I write my eyewitness account of a city dealing with a new form of revolutionary politics that has swept the region over the last year. What follows are simply my own musings on the revolutionary environment that I have been lucky enough to experience for the past eight months and the images that shape the political world around me.
From the time the revolution started in Cairo on Jan. 25, 2011 until the former president Hosni Mubarak left office on Feb. 11, I obsessively watched Al Jazeera and became intimately familiar with images of youth in the street, police shooting tear gas and beating protesters, Egyptian flags waving from every house, etc. It is with these images in my head, shaping the way I experienced the city, that I first arrived in this mega-metropolis last May. And, it is the constant supply of such images that continues to shape my political understanding of the country – not always in ways that I expect.
Being a pretentious, hipster university graduate the first images I encountered – portrayed in film and literature – were familiar to me despite being saturated with revolutionary fervor. Nearly every film festival, concert and art exhibit, whether aimed at a Western crowd or Egyptians, is compelled to deal with the issue of revolution in one way or another.
In late January, the Ibn Rachiq Culture House in Tunis hosted an international symposium titled, “Arab Spring Through the Eyes of Arab Novelists” that attempted to examine the role of the artists and writers in the popular insurrections against injustice and despotism.
Then, exactly a year after Egypt’s Jan. 25 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, Cairo’s International Book Fair, one of the biggest book fairs in the world, brought together a host of publishing houses from across the Arab world at a fair grounds covered in images of revolution. Politics was on the lips of every bookseller and attendee; the book fair provided a fertile ground for pan-Arab conversations on revolutionary practice and the future of politics in the Arab world.
Yet, revolution has affected more than just high culture.
Graffiti covers almost every square inch of concrete wall in the downtown Tahrir Square area, narrating the streets’ recent history in vibrant colors of revolution and violence. Drawing on Pharaonic imagery, revolutionary rhetoric and popular slogans, the graffiti stays in the square when protesters are forced out, permanently occupying a space that has served as the country’s revolutionary hub. Many of these breath-taking works of street-art seek to immortalize those who have lost life and limb for political freedoms as well as social and economic justice.
In the streets, pits left from when protesters pulled up cobble-stones to throw at police have been filled with sand, turning the street into a living embodiment of the slogan from France’s 1968 revolution, “Sous les pavés, la plage”: Under the paving stones, the beach.
Yet, while the lasting effects of this year of political upheaval in Cairo exist as living art objects giving testimony to the romance of revolution, they lurk in more nefarious ways as well.
Gil Scott-Heron sang in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” that “the revolution will not go better with Coke,” but that certainly hasn’t stopped Coca-Cola from trying to profit off of it.
Littering the streets and television waves of Cairo is Coke’s new advertising campaign, acting as a vaudeville caricature of revolutionary rhetoric and solidarity seeks to profit off such phrases as “make tomorrow a better day” and “help each other, the world needs us” accompanied by images of “ordinary” Egyptians using Coca-Cola to improve the world they live in.
These images fall amongst many others that catch my attention on my way to and from class everyday. Walking through my middle-class neighborhood to catch a cab to the American University, I pass by the tattered remains of parliamentary election posters, many of which belong to the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Party of Light – two parties that took the largest number of seats in the recently formed parliament tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution.
To the liberal left-leaning youth who sparked January 2011’s revolution, these posters serve as a reminder that the countries direction is now out of their control, relegated to the all too familiar upper echelons of campaign finance.
Every night, as I return home, patients exiting the two major hospitals in my neighborhood specializing in eye injuries pass me by.
During the clashes over the past few months between protesters and the army, hundreds of young men have either lost eyes or sustained debilitating eye injuries due to crowd-control weapons: munitions – as anyone who cares to investigate the spent casings of rubber bullets and flying gas canisters that can be found, around the city will find – produced in the United States.
These men exiting the hospital are often young, accompanied by a friend or a relative and wearing a heavy patch over one eye, reminding me every day of my own government’s complicity in the massive state repression that Egypt’s revolutionary youth have faced over the past year. Groups of teenagers occupy the corners and store fronts around town, often sporting Ahli Soccer Club t-shirts, a reminder to all of the events of Feb. 1, when 79 were killed and over 1,000 injured due to the gross police misconduct and negligence that has been the hallmark of post-revolutionary Egypt.
The city seemingly speaks to me in the dialectic language of revolution and counter-revolution. Yet more than anything, the picture of revolutionary solidarity shines through. In the midst of hundreds of Egyptian flags dotting Tahrir Square stands a single tent with the Syrian flag flying high, part of a continued occupation outside of the Arab League building pushing for pan-Arab action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This pan-regional solidarity might be the lasting effect of last year’s uprisings and it is this image that sticks out the most amidst the graffiti, pot-holed sidewalks and political posters.
Nate Christensen is a University of Georgia graduate who has been living in Cairo for past two years. He can be reached at email@example.com.