Tuesday, December 20, 2011

EGYPT: "Revolt of the 'Harafeesh'"

Revolt of the "Harafeesh"
By: Serene Assir
Published Monday, December 19, 2011

Cairo - Ahmed Mohammed took a long drag on his cigarette as he nursed his wounds and rested before returning to the front line of clashes.

In Qasr al-Aini Street, we stole a few minutes from fate on Sunday evening before a stunted military advance to discuss his reasons for being part of what some refer to as the Harafeesh revolt.

Like every other protester, Mohammed is risking his life by joining the informal front line of popular defense for protesters demanding that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) step down.

Many of those facing military violence against protesters in downtown Cairo are dispossessed youth, including teenagers and people in their twenties from the capital's slums.

Mohammed said he was from Zeinhom, one of Cairo's many slum areas. With a scratched face, bruised eye and bandaged thigh, the young man was intent on staying put.

Mohammed was one of hundreds of young people who joined the protest after the military attacked participants in a three-week-long sit-in at the gates of the Cabinet building, in a side street off Qasr al-Aini in downtown Cairo.

The first attack took place in the early hours on Friday December 16, after sit-in participant Aboudi Ibrahim was detained and badly beaten whilst in detention. The situation quickly escalated, and protesters were ambushed and besieged for several hours on the side-street.

The crackdown then spilled over onto the main street of Qasr al-Aini. By the early hours of Monday, the violence had spread to Tahrir Square and several other streets in the area, with intermittent advances and retreats by the armed forces.

During the first two days of fierce clashes, images broadcast on television showing excessive military violence against protesters drew hundreds from across the city, including 26-year-old Alaa Omar. While the brutal exchange continued, it appeared that a great many of those present had not in fact been involved in the sit-in, but rather came in solidarity with the victims of violence.

"Over the past three days, I've been wounded several times with rocks hurled at the crowds from the rooftops of government buildings around us," Mohammed said. "I was also injured in the leg by a rubber bullet. But I decided to stay. My life is not worth any more than the martyrs'."

By Monday afternoon, at least 14 people had been killed around Tahrir Square. Hundreds were injured. Volunteer field doctors, who have themselves suffered a number of attacks and beatings, have struggled to keep up with the flow of casualties.

During the early hours of Monday, protesters suffered a fierce advance by the army and central security forces combined. Protesters and field doctors both said snipers roamed the rooftops of the heart of Egyptian bureaucracy, the Mugamma building in Tahrir Square. At least the last person to be killed on Monday morning, said the field doctors, died from a sniper's bullet.

"I just need to be here. I need to defend the country from this savagery," he said calmly. "I still dream of a good future. But since the January 25 revolution started, I haven't seen any improvement in my life. I don't have work. I didn't finish school. And now, we see that what we all fought for in January and February hasn't helped us. You can see that we are all still oppressed and treated like animals."

"My conscience tells me I need to be here," he said. At the front line, youths moved to vanguard positions in rotation, taking turns to hurl stones into the ranks of soldiers. After the military set up a wall dividing the street, we saw the silhouette of an individual street fighter climb it, running along the top, as though dancing, taunting the military while throwing stones onto the soldiers from above.

"We've suffered all our lives. Don't believe anyone who tells you the revolution has made things worse. The majority have suffered for decades," said Omar, who added that all he wanted in life was to live in dignity. His tone was heavy with passionate rage, until he could no longer contain his tears. "Nobody cares about Egyptians. We have always stood by the Palestinians and the Lebanese, getting beaten for participating in protests. We learned humaneness from our mothers, and what we are witnessing is inhumane. We can't just watch."

Like Mohammed, Omar was drawn into the fight not by ideology but by a bittersweet mixture of surfacing rage and inherited culture that considers conscience and solidarity crucial.

"We have always been on the outside. We are the poor people of Egypt. Have you ever heard of al-harafeesh?" Omar asked. The reference was to the title of a popular Egyptian film based on a 1977 Naguib Mahfouz novel titled Malhamet al-Harafeesh, exploring the lives of Egypt's forgotten millions.

The late Nobel laureate's novel looked into life of those not integrated into the system, where marginalization led characters to impoverishment, scraping a living on the black market, making do in the urban jungle, while barely making a living.

"We are al-harafeesh!" exclaimed Omar, raising his arms. "We are the ones who have nothing, who have been patient for years but still have dignity. Freedom is here, we just have to take it. There is enough food in this country for everyone, but they make us hungry."

With his thick Egyptian accent coming through, he said the revolution could not have ended because the basic demand of "bread" has not yet been met. "There are millions of people like me. They will all come out if things don't get better fast.

But not everyone in Cairo's popular districts were as enthusiastic about defending the revolution and the call for the SCAF to fall. Over recent weeks, an escalating media campaign criminalizing protesters gathering in downtown Cairo came to a peak during the clashes.

The campaign has left many millions across the city wondering whether those in the square were legitimate protesters, or in fact thugs and counter-revolutionaries, as Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri referred to them in a televised speech on December 17.

In Darb al-Ahmar, a popular district not far from downtown, Ahmed Essam, a subsidized goods shop owner, said the "people are tired. We just want to get back to normal. People are afraid of even going to Tahrir Square, because of what we hear on TV."

A man of many friends in Darb al-Ahmar, Essam was evocative of a certain kind of Mahfouz character, of the type who has good relations with everyone around him while helping maintain the status quo.

While he spoke kindly, he also doubted the legitimacy of denunciations against the military's recent acts of violence against women protesters. "I don't know whether they really did those bad things to women. But even if they did, they may have deserved it," he said.

Women have been heavily targeted in this latest round of violence, with numerous accounts of beating, electrocution with tasers and public stripping.

Nearby, two young men on a scooter said they were ready to go into Tahrir and break up the protest themselves if demonstrators didn't stop "ruining the country," said 20-year-old Ali Sabri. "They are not revolutionaries. They do drugs there, and they're paid to be there. They are dishonest."

In such an atmosphere of mistrust and contained aggression, with nightly deaths and casualties in downtown Cairo, it remained to be seen just how the country's more marginal populations would finally achieve the social justice promised by the revolution.

With the political struggle unresolved, the country's economic situation "is even worse than under former President Hosni Mubarak," said Ahmed al-Naggar of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "None of the economic demands of the revolution relating to social justice have been met."

Meanwhile, as brutally shown through the past four nights' clashes, "the SCAF has done nothing to provide the security a country needs in order to enjoy prosperity," said al-Naggar. Now it is the most marginalized who are paying the price, not only through resistance, but also in blood. 

Palash Biswas
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