Fieldnotes, Airplane Ride Back


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Sherine Hamdy, "Physician at press conference holds up his white coat in which he had written on the back that he was prepared to die a martyr." April 23, 2013.

I was on the airplane, en route from Newark to Cairo this past December 16th, my husband and two young daughters in tow. Protestors had been camped out for a month in front of the Cabinet building, calling for an end to military rule and condemning the appointment of Kamal el-Ganzouri, an 80-year old politician from Mubarak’s old regime, as prime minister. The day I arrived, the military unleashed violence on the crowd. Many of their actions were both bizarre and horrific. They violently dismantled the tents of protestors, while soldiers on high roofs hurled cement blocks on their heads. Some shot rubber bullets at protesters; others beat them with sticks. Still other soldiers stayed inside the government buildings; from behind glass windows they taunted protestors with obscene pornographic gestures, threw office furniture at them, and urinated on their faces. They arrested, beat, and harassed protestors both female and male, as well as volunteer medics who had arrived on the scene to offer first aid to the injured. 

At the airport, my cousin and aunt were of course happy to see us. But heavier emotions were hanging in the air. My cousin was receiving continuous reports and images on her mobile phone; she briefly told me what was going on downtown. The latest text message reported that sandwiches someone had handed out to demonstrators had poisoned them.

I had come to Cairo expecting people to be outraged by the disproportionate violence the military was using against unarmed protestors. And of course, plenty of people were. I was not expecting that most Egyptians I met would voice apathy and suspicion toward the protestors – that most Egyptians would say things like, “Enough already. We just want the country to move on. They are preventing us from moving forward.” It was not only the wealthier, secure benefactors of the old regime, but also those in lower socio-economic strata in Cairo who were saying these things. I thought about how hard their lives were – how hard it was simply to get to work, the high cost of transportation despite its unreliability, how much wages were decreasing even as the prices of food and heating gas were on the rise. For many, it was enough of a struggle just to get through the day – why would anyone go out and stir more trouble? Why provoke the military?

“These kids demonstrating and calling for an end to military rule – it is like they are going out there to meet their death,” one middle-aged man from a low-income neighborhood in Cairo told me. But when I talked to friends more active in the protests, they explained that such statements often came from those who had been so emotionally and physically abused by political corruption and poverty over the years, that they had come to defend their abusers. According to Dr. Aly Ghoneim, a surgeon at Kasr el Aini hospital who offered medical services to the injured during the conflicts, Egyptian people at large are suffering from “Stockholm syndrome,” too afraid to learn about an alternative to life under captivity.

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Sherine Hamdy, " Medical syndicate press conference December 25, 2011."

In the latest conflicts of November and December, the military waged unprecedented attacks against doctors, a class of professionals generally seen as “too connected” to be treated as dispensable. The most powerful meeting I attended was a press conference at the Egyptians Doctors’ Syndicate in which doctors testified to their having been attacked and specifically targeted by the military during the recent conflicts; soldiers condemned them – in some cases beating, assaulting, and torturing them – for offering first aid to “thugs,” as they attempted to deal with cracked skulls and hemorrhaging among the injured protestors.

The cab ride from the Doctor’s Syndicate to where I was staying should have taken 7 minutes, but I arrived 2 and a half hours later, my wallet emptied for the fare.  In that short distance, stuck in the traffic, I had seen thousands of frustrated and angry people trapped in cars, buses, and microbuses trying to make their way home. I tried to reconcile these images with the images I had seen at the press conference of the injuries sustained by the doctors – they were all part of the same senseless wounding.

After watching government television stations, satellite news, and talking to people on the streets, it felt nearly impossible to sort out what had actually happened at those protests the day I arrived in Cairo. The protestors who ate the poisonous sandwiches, it turned out, were not the victims of intentional malignance – just food poisoning. The woman who had made the sandwiches appeared on television looking terribly remorseful, and described where she had bought the meat. What about the now infamous image of the woman who had been stripped of her veil and abaya, revealing just a blue bra, whose midriff was about to receive a kick from the soldier’s boot? Surely this image spoke for itself! One television program aired an interview with the photographer, who said that he could not feel happy that this photograph would advance his career; he knew that Egypt’s image would suffer because of it.

It didn’t take long for people to voice suspicions about what the photograph portrayed – why was she there anyway? And why would she just happen to be wearing a photogenic and alluring bra? Where were her other layers of clothes? It only appeared that her abaya was stripped off – surely she was a “plant” for the foreign media to tarnish Egypt’s image! The young revolutionaries, with characteristic wit, answered such talk with hilarious commercial spoofs for “Karina,” the Egyptian brand of under-shirts and other inner-garments in rhyme, claiming that as long as you wear Karina, you’ll never get stripped naked – including one that went, “As long as you wear a Karina, the army could drag you [clothes intact] all the way to Marina [beach resort on the Mediterranean].”

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Sherine Hamdy, " Poster of the Ain Shams 5th-year medical student, Alaa Abdel Hady, at Tahrir Square, held up by his uncle" April 23, 2013.

At Friday demonstrations in Tahrir Square in the weeks that followed, it was hard not to feel depressed, moved, and full of admiration all at once. Family members walked the square holding up posters with images of their loved ones who had been killed. I heard one doctor exclaim, in frustration, “Why are we [middle-class, educated] risking our lives so that [the poor] can have a better life, when all we get in return is suspicion and even condemnation of our being here!” His friend replied, “Because we aren’t doing it to be praised by them. We are doing it because this is what is right.” Upon reflection now, I realize that this person, from the educated middle-classes is also motivated by indignation at the fact that the educated middle-classes are being treated more and morelike the poor – that is, inhumanely and disrespectfully. And of course the protestors are not only those of the educated middle classes. The poor have been there too, from the start, including the street children who lost their lives fighting the soldiers in the violence on Muhammad Mahmoud Street in November. The protestors are depicted in increasingly dehumanized terms – as outside of the nation (traitors, the dupes of foreign conspiracies) and as outside the moral community, such that a woman stripped and beaten publicly can provoke derision rather than outrage.

My month in Egypt flew by. I had barely enough time to meet with all the people I wanted to. When I am in the U.S., I follow the news in Egypt wishing I were there doing something. But when I was there, an overwhelming mixture of weariness and anxiety chastened my ambitions for writing anything that could make a difference.  I feel nostalgic for the early months after February 11, when Mubarak resigned – I miss the tangible euphoria that was in the air, the pride and hope that had been restored. A year later, what will we celebrate?

But then another lesson: steadfastness, determination, patience. When everything seems stacked against the revolution, the revolutionaries’ determination remains; as one of the protestors at Tahrir answered to the feelings of exasperation at people having abandoned the movement, “Have we forgotten so quickly? On January 25th [when the revolution began] they said we were foreign conspirators, druggies, and dupes who were being paid by outsiders wanting to destroy Egypt. Those who were against us are the same people against us now. And those who were with us are those still with us now. All the gains we’ve made have been made by us, a small group within Egypt. So we have to keep up the struggle.”

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Sherine Hamdy, "Tahrir Square, picture of martyr poster (from another angle)." April 23, 2013.

This statistically “small group” is comprised of those with everything to lose, nothing to lose, and those in between. As I write this, young revolutionaries are forming human chains on the sidewalks of major intersections and roads in Cairo, preparing for the 1-year anniversary of the January 25 uprisings; they are struggling to reclaim the original image and impetus of their movement. Facing the traffic, they hold up handwritten signs that say: “We want stability too,” “We are not thugs,” and “We want justice.” Meanwhile, there are no signs that the military, having seized power, is ready to recognize the rights of the people to demonstrate against them. And there is little promise that the economic hardships, compounded by the year of political instability, will ease any time soon. The basic demands of the revolution are as urgent now as ever: Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice.   

ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF AUTHOR

(From top to bottom)

(1) Physician at press conference holds up his white coat in which he had written on the back that he was prepared to die a martyr

(2) Medical syndicate press conference December 25, 2011

(3) Poster of the Ain Shams 5th-year medical student, Alaa Abdel Hady, at Tahrir Square, held up by his uncle

(4) Tahrir Square, picture of martyr poster (from another angle)