Divide deepens between Tahrir Square and Egypt

As voting for a new government starts, Egyptians are sympathetic but wary of unrest.

Published November 28, 2011 1:38PM (EST)

CAIRO--As dusk descended on the densely packed Cairo neighborhood of Boulaq ad-Dakrur Saturday, donkey carts whizzed by men sipping tea who were focused more on putting food on their plates than participating in the demonstrations that have racked central Cairo this week. Just a few miles from the iconic Tahrir Square, this poor neighborhood felt worlds apart from the political chaos grabbing headlines here and abroad.

While millions packed Tahrir in January and February during the uprising that ultimately toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, this week’s unrest appeared to lack the popular support that marked the earlier protests. While many sympathize with the families of those who have been killed or injured, they have also grown tired of the political paralysis that has generated instability and kept the economy down.

“People are focused on one thing: work,” explained Hany, a 35 year-old doorman who also works at a local cultural center. “Work so they can feed their family. Stability.”

Clashes broke out last Saturday in a street leading to Tahrir after police broke up a sit-in in the square following a massive protest the day before. Fighting continued over the next five days, with protesters packing the square each day and a sit-in continuing to shut down the area; over 40 died and more than 2,000 were injured. The ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) has tried to quell the demonstrations and reassure Egyptians ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled to kick off today.

As voters begin to go to the polls, the political maneuvering continues. Generals on the council this week accepted the resignation of the civilian cabinet and chose a new prime minister; they also promised to step down from power by July. But details of the new government and the military’s statements seemed lost on some residents in Boulaq ad-Dakrur, where buildings sit so close that sunlight struggles to reach the children playing soccer in the unpaved alleys below.

A divide is growing between the hardcore, largely liberal activists in Tahrir and the vast majority of Egyptians who have not been actively engaged in the political scene since Mubarak’s overthrow, according to analysts. The deepening disconnect, they say, could threaten the goals of the uprising that took down the dictator.

Over the past few months, Egyptians across Cairo have increasingly called attention to their hunger for stability, a need they say trumps the activists’ desire for continued protests.  In Boulaq ad-Dakrur, neighborhood residents expressed sympathy for protesters who have died in recent days and support for an improved political system. Yet they generally stopped short of backing demonstrators’ continued occupation of Tahrir.

As I sat at a local coffeehouse and watched smoke from a water pipe waft skyward, a 26 year-old security guard named Hossam told me that many of his neighbors had, in fact, traveled to Tahrir this week -- but generally not to support the protesters. Instead, they were merely curious to see with their own eyes what was taking place downtown.

Hossam, who had visited the square a couple times, said he himself did back the protesters, though he added that his dedication was uncommon among his neighbors. While everyone poured into Tahrir back in January and February, he said, “now, there aren’t as many” who want to partake.

Ashraf said he had been arrested for participating in the September storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Subjected to a military trial and a two-month imprisonment despite his insistence he had played no role in the riot, he is fed up with the way the SCAF is running the country. He remains reluctant to join in the demonstrations.

Many are tired of protests. When the army over the summer used violence to break up a sit-in that had shut down Tahrir for nearly a month, many were pleased to see Tahrir, a major traffic circle in the heart of Cairo, once again open to vehicles and commerce.

That’s not to say the residents of Boulaq ad-Dakrur did not support the January uprising. Many residents were excited to see Mubarak step down. In one narrow alleyway, a banner memorializes a 21 year-old from the neighborhood who died in the fighting that deposed the former president.

Months later, though, the economy has taken a hit and ordinary residents have felt the effects, all too painful when salaries are already so low. Tourism and foreign investment are down, and the Egyptian stock market dropped sharply this week on news of the protests.

"Revolution is great, unless you care about making money and feeding your family," Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, told me. While over 100,000 filled Tahrir on Friday -- and tens of thousands rallied en masse other days -- many of those protesters turned out in a show of solidarity for civilians who have died battling the police.

“Everybody wants to feel that they are stakeholders” in Egypt’s future, even those who are not physically able to spend time in Tahrir, said Nabil Fahmy, a former ambassador to the United States who is now the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. “I don’t think that means that they don’t support the reform process. It’s just how many are ready to pay a price for it.”

The SCAF, the military council that assumed power after Mubarak’s departure, seems to believe that most Egyptians have faith in its ability to lead that reform process, at least in the short term. Its statements over the last week have largely been directed at those outside downtown Cairo.

“Egypt is not Tahrir Square. Egypt is not Mohammed Mahmoud Street,” Maj. Gen. Mukhtar el-Mallah, a member of the council, said at a Thursday press conference, referring to the street where most of the violent clashes have occurred.

Khaled Ismail El-Halil, a 40 year-old taxi driver from a working-class neighborhood a few miles north of Tahrir, praised the military’s leadership. He wishes he had been able to take time off work to attend at a pro-SCAF rally in Cairo Friday night.

“The square – they’re all crazy,” he exclaimed Saturday. “I’m with the field marshal, I’m with the police, I’m with security and loyalty,” he said, referring to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, heads the SCAF and is effectively the chief of state Egypt.

Activists at the center of the demonstrations seem to have an inflated view of the actual backing they have elsewhere in the country, and even in other parts of the capital, analysts said.

“They don't seem to be aware of the disconnect,” said Hamid, who is currently in Cairo. “If anything, they seem to be under the impression that they represent Egypt and that they represent the majority of Egyptians. … It's not the reality.”

Saleh Fekry, 24, knows that most of his compatriots desire stability, but says anger at police brutality unites people with the protesters. Fekry, an activists and chemical engineer who said he was beaten and detained by police for more than 10 hours overnight Tuesday, has spent time in Tahrir and on Mohammed Mahmoud Street nearly every day since last Friday.

Sporting wounds on his shoulder and head he said were the result of a rubber bullet and an officer’s billy club, respectively, Fekry was confident in his belief that the majority of Egyptians harbor an opposition to the violence that erupted this week.

“They’re against violence by any means,” Fekry said.

But others are more skeptical of Egyptians who have stayed home.

“There are two types of taxi drivers,” said protester Shady Elewa, generalizing about Egyptians outside of the square, “those who think the protesters have a right, and those who are selfish and think about work.”

The 28 year-old lawyer has spent much of the past week in Tahrir Square, splitting his time between the clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud St. and the field hospitals set up in the square itself.

For Elewa, the wariness of many Egyptians toward the clashes has hit close to home. Every two hours, he said, he ran to his apartment in a nearby neighborhood to give his family a call and reassure them he was not downtown participating.

Most Egyptians do not understand what has taken place this week downtown, Elewa argued, explaining that they received their news from state media and statements from the SCAF. Protesters witness developments firsthand. “We know the truth,” he said.

With elections scheduled to kick off on today, a popular dissatisfaction with the pace of progress has translated into a dearth of confidence in political leaders. Public figures ranging from the liberal Mohamed ElBaradei to senior Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed el-Beltagy have felt the scorn of Egyptians across the political spectrum; protesters heckled el-Beltagy on Monday when he came to Tahrir, forcing him to leave.

“People are scared, and there is somehow a rejection of the whole political class,” said Mona Makram-Ebeid, a professor at the American University in Cairo and a former Member of Parliament. “The streets seem to be more advanced than the leaders, whether it is the political class or the military.”

A lack of faith in the political system could decide whether Egyptians view the voting as legitimate. Despite calls over the past week for the SCAF to delay elections in light of the recent clashes, military leaders have repeatedly stated that voting will go forward on time. Many Egyptians believe the elections would represent a solid step forward after months of political uncertainty.

A plethora of campaign banners slung across street poles and buildings in Boulaq ad-Dakrur on Saturday sung the praises of various candidates for parliament. Hany, the doorman, reported that politicians had recently been in the neighborhood jockeying for residents’ votes.

But only a few days out from the first round of voting, the overwhelming majority of Egyptians I spoke with in Boulaq ad-Dakrur and elsewhere had no idea whom they were going to support. For every one person who had chosen a candidate, a dozen had yet to make up their mind.

A campaign season that has lasted only a few weeks coupled with the distraction of the recent demonstrations has left people confused about their choices. For now, they are focused on the news of the unrest a few miles away and the fear that it may lengthen Egypt’s already faltering path toward stability.

By Ben Gittleson

Ben Gittleson is a writer living in Cairo. Follow him on Twitter @bgittleson.

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Egypt Tahrir Square