Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ballots and Bullets

So it has been weeks since I last posted. I was tempted to defend my tardiness using averages: I have been in Egypt now for 13 weeks, and this is my fourth update, so I left it so long to make an average of one every 3-4 weeks. Shame it isn’t true – I’m afraid that life has become, in most senses, normal, and so I have to dig deeper to find things to write about. One thing that I don’t have to dig deeper for, however, is the general situation in Egypt, and now that things have largely settled, that is what I’m going to write about today. (Apologies to the School of Politics and International Relations at Nottingham University for stealing the title of this post from their blog.)

It all started three or four weeks ago, and revolves around the role of the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – collectively acting as a Presidential Council until a new president is elected at some vague point in the future. The idea is that this will happen in the summer of 2012, or by the start of 2013 at the latest. Don’t hold your breath…) in the ‘New Egypt’. The parliamentary elections were due to be held (and, indeed, were) on 28 November; one of the jobs of the new parliament was to be to select a constitutional council to write a new constitution. A couple of weeks prior to the election, the SCAF, in its infinite wisdom, decided to publish a draft constitution that would have exempted the army (and its budget) from civilian oversight. Now tensions had been rising over the weeks prior to this, anyway, for a variety of reasons, but this pushed things over the edge. People suspected that the SCAF had greater designs that simply keeping the seat warm for Egypt’s future democratic leadership. And, as they had learnt in January that unelected governments can’t resist popular and public pressure forever, they took to the streets.

I’m unclear on the exact order of how things happened from then on, but it is quite evident that the SCAF took a dim view of protestors in the run up to elections, and responded with force (whilst making threatening noises about those who wished to disrupt the transition to democracy). Tens of people were killed in Cairo, and a few in Alex. Events were very local – they tended to focus on large public spaces, or on security headquarters – so most of the time I knew no more, and probably less, than was known in the UK simply by watching or listening to the BBC. A few times a protest would march past my house (one time quite a large one went past) but most of the time that was all I knew of it. There were big protests in the centre of Alexandria two Fridays before the election: the most I saw of that were two boys, aged about 14, carrying Egyptian flags as they headed into town on the tram. My school is in town, so occasionally I would hear protestors during my lessons. One group marched past chanting something along the lines of “State Security, State Dogs” – as chants go, the translation rather lets it down. State Security (my teacher’s translation – I don’t know what they’re called in the foreign media) is the name of the secret police, an organisation disbanded after the revolution in January, but, think the protestors, up and running again (being ‘secret’, there is no official announcement).

One Friday my housemate and I decided that we would wander up the road to take a look at the protests at the police headquarters for the city. I have been informed by many sources that this was foolish. My mitigating plea is that to live in a country undergoing such political upheaval without venturing out to experience the situation would be something of a wasted opportunity. As it turned out, foolish or not, we chose the wrong time to go protest chasing – it was too early in the day, and the protest was gathering, but no more. Every few minutes a small group would arrive from different parts of the city, waving flags or beating drums, but (foolish as we are) as we weren’t keen on getting too close this was the height of the action that we saw. Instead, we were intercepted by a friendly paramedic – he may have been trying to stop us getting too close, but given the level of activity at the time, I’m more inclined to believe that he was simply bored, and wanted a chat. He didn’t speak English, but with a mixture of sign language and my limited Arabic we managed to get by for about 45 minutes. Our cue to leave was some doctors arriving to set up a medical station: an indication, we felt, that things were expected to get more serious shortly afterwards. According to the news, they did – but by then my housemate and I were safely back in our house.

That was really the limit of the excitement, as far as I was concerned. The elections duly went ahead on the 28th, with run-offs on the 5th of this month. Unsurprisingly, the Muslim Brotherhood came out on top; perhaps more surprising was that the salafist party al-Noor (“The Light”) came second. It seems that the vote was pretty free and fair – certainly the SCAF wasn’t too impressed, as they described the result as ‘unrepresentative’ (using this as their justification for retaining ultimate control over selection of candidates for the Constitutional Council). If it was unfair for any particular group, it will have been the Christians. My landlady reported having her ballot paper taken from her before she could put it in the ballot box, by a man offering to help her – but this is the only anecdote I have heard, and it’s quite possible that this was an error due to the novelty of the affair rather than a deliberate act.

Meanwhile, my Arabic is improving greatly. Since I last wrote, I have given two five minute presentations in front of the other students and staff (all the students do it): one in formal Arabic, and one in Egyptian colloquial. (The formal one was about my family, and included a picture of Auckland Castle with reference to my father. A new English friend, who’s just started at the school, gave his colloquial presentation a couple of weeks later about his family, including a picture of Ampleforth Abbey, where he went to school. The staff and students now appear convinced that all English people live in castles.) I was made ‘Student of the Month’ for my first presentation, as an example of how far one could improve in two months. It made me feel a complete fraud – I had learnt both presentations off by heart, and one could no more judge the quality of my Arabic from them than one could judge the quality of Mel Gibson’s Aramaic from the Passion of the Christ. On the other hand, it has encouraged me to work much harder, if only to make sure that I’m not later accused of dramatic regression…

Not wanting to tax your patience any further, I shall leave this here. As I will not be writing again until January, I shall wish all of you a very happy and joyful Christmas.

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