Under the pavement

You can be forgiven for thinking June 30 was the end of something and the beginning of something else. That it certainly was.

Since then the Egyptian government has studiously laid out a narrative for us all, one that maintains that July 3 was Egypt’s “year zero”: no more Muslim Brotherhood, no more mucking about. And yet there’s nothing new about it.

Now the Brotherhood is gone and — in private, at least — officials are happy to say they are not coming back. David Kirkpatrick’s New York Times piece about the return of feloul extraordinaire Mohamed Farid al-Tohamy as general intelligence services chief exhibits the anti-Brotherhood zeal: “Its members were ‘terrorists’ whose movement must be excluded and crushed, General Tohamy argued, according to the Western officials who met with him and with Egyptians in the new government.”

By arresting Islamists, repeatedly extending detention periods and denying whatever attempts at reconciliation that may or may not exist, the Brotherhood is meant to have been “decapitated” and, ultimately, erased from view. 

Meanwhile, the government has set about making a “new” Egypt, a post- and counter-revolutionary state built on military-sponsored reform, repression and the alarming/amusing cult of Commander-in-Chief and Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The idea of newness following one year of Brotherhood mismanagement made these familiar stalwarts of Egyptian politics, from Mubarak and before, more attractive — forgivable, even.

When Sisi made his announcement that Mohamed Morsi was no longer president of Egypt, and that a “future roadmap . . . which ensures the construction of a strong and coherent Egyptian society” would be introduced in his place, he was announcing this new Egypt.

Now the roadmap is far from creating a fresh start for Egypt, precisely because there is nothing new about it. 

This is compounded by this week’s indefensible sentencing of 21 women, many of them teenage girls, to 11 years in prison for little more than standing in a peaceful protest outside a school in Alexandria, and the dumping of female activists in the desert at midnight, to punish them for defying the protest law.

The latest charges leveled against activists Alaa Abd El Fattah and Ahmed Maher are further demonstration of Mubarak-era playbook tactics, while today’s demand to drop military trials and attempts to protect the right to protest have simply created another revolutionary front for activists to fight the regime on. That in itself undermines the narrative that all of Egypt’s problems would be solved by some final Manichean confrontation with the Brotherhood.

Despite all this, there are predictably self-serving attempts to freshen Egypt up.

After months of violence, Cairo’s annual Euromoney conference returned in November. In an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm, conference director Richard Banks said, “The world now views Egypt as a very dangerous place” thanks to journalists reporting and, so the insinuation went, misreporting post-Morsi unrest.

“My friends and I do not see any problem in Egypt other than traffic congestion,” Banks said. 

On top of security, economic development has become a defining feature of the “new” Egypt because both will supposedly raise it out of the Morsi-era’s malaise.

Meanwhile, at street level, municipal workers have returned to Tahrir Square and painted a load of lamp posts green while one security wall (on Qasr al-Aini street in downtown Cairo) has been completely removed. This is a symbolic public works successor to the Brotherhood’s midlife-crisis “Let’s Build Egypt Together” initiative earlier this year, but which is meant to appear more enduring and final. 

Jared Malsin’s recent Vice article about the redecoration of Cairo — or “sweeping unrest under the carpet” — included the words of a worker from the city’s ‘Beautification Center’, who claimed it all “expresses a return to the appearance it had at first, before the revolution.”

All this “cleaning up” leaves us confused, not knowing whether to expect a new Egypt or a return to the old pre-revolution times. But without an awareness of all the politics of cleanliness, Cairo begins to look like a cartoon. In it, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is standing sheepishly, with his back against a rolled up carpet hiding bodies, detritus and ugliness, waiting for someone to come home. We all know how that scene ends.

Mia Jankowicz wrote it recently: “Using gallons of paint in municipal spaces we might be convinced that, even while dissidence is being suppressed, meaningful democratic change has taken place.”

If it looks like progress then maybe it is? After all, they built a monument in Tahrir Square. And yet the day after, protesters defaced it. And then two people died in the same space, two more martyrs. Will their names be added to the list?

Future advice: raise a monument after the battle, not right in the middle of it. Otherwise you just confirm, like the Egyptian government has, that Tahrir is still unresolved space, an urban stadium for Egypt’s concentric revolutions, counter-revolutions and Sisi fans, somewhere in the middle, just trying to keep busy cheering on an military dictatorship under construction.

“Under the pavement, the beach,” someone scrawled this on a wall in Paris in 1968.

Walk down Talaat Harb street at the center of Cairo twice a week and you will notice how the paving stones being rooted up to be replaced by nice new ones are later getting rooted up again to throw at police. There’s sand underneath.

“[They] tried to erase and remake me. But it didn’t work.” This statement comes from Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” She is quoting a patient/victim of a CIA-funded psychotherapist who believed in “depatterning” subjects so they could be built up and reconditioned again later. The woman ultimately remembered, researched a blank in her past, and then told a Canadian journalist who was investigating the idea of “shock therapy” in free market capitalism and globalization.

You can go too far comparing Egypt today with Klein’s book, but successive massacres and then restrictive legislation meant to patch up the wounds, bears similarities to many of the post-coup countries she discusses. Either way, the roadmap is a moral beginning-and-end tale that tries to erase and employ a linear idea of progress on an escalating situation that is anything but.

Egypt’s army, business community and feloul ministerial class want a stable, deferential and investment-friendly state above all else — that is supposedly Egypt’s future. They can host conferences, build monuments and sweep the streets once a week but, ultimately, the constants of this regime and the ones before it — violence and repression — will always say more.

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Tom Rollins  @rollinz
Tom Rollins is a Cairo-based freelance journalist.