A Tahrir Stroll

From what I’ve heard, Tahrir Square isn’t the kind of place one strolls about. More of a place for dodging and weaving against a ceaseless onslaught of oncoming traffic, overzealous street vendors, and, of late, rocks and Molotov cocktails.

After my plan to trek out to Cairo’s eastern outskirts to cover the resumption of Hosni Mubarak’s trial this morning fell through, I settled for checking out what was up in Tahrir, the now world famous epicenter of the revolution that toppled the now world’s most famous criminal defendant. Maybe the restart of the trial—suspended for the last three months as the court considered a request to replace the presiding judge—had breathed some life back into the place since I last passed through on Saturday, when I’d found it strangely quiet mere hours after tens of thousands had rallied against the ruling military council on Friday.

I walked down to the square from my hostel around 10:30, perhaps an hour after the day’s proceedings had commenced. Entering from Talaat Harb Street, one of the main traffic arteries downtown, the fairly lifeless square bore little resemblance to its explosive alter ego commonly seen on TV. A few vendors half-heartedly hawked black “January 25” T-shirts, though their persistence lagged far behind their counterparts at Cairo’s tourist attractions. In the center of the square, where an encampment of around 20 tents remains, small groups of men gathered in circles to discuss I wish I knew what in hushed, dispassionate tones.

Tents in Tahrir Square.

I pressed on, onto Mohamed Mahmoud Street, site of the urban warfare between protesters and police back in November that killed more than 40, and Qasr el-Ainey, the thoroughfare to a series of government offices, where almost 20 died in clashes with the military earlier this month. Both have since been converted to cul-de-sacs, sealed off a block from the square by hulking 20-foot concrete masses now decorated with various spray-painted iterations of “Fuck SCAF.” Ordinarily, they bustle with Cairo’s familiar complement of honking cabs and zigzagging motorbikes. Now, they’re possibly the only streets in the entire city you can cross without fearing for your life. A steady trickle of pedestrians seemed happy to take advantage of the traffic holiday. They ambled along the middle of the street toward the wall up ahead.  Every so often, one would pause to point out some graffiti here or a hastily-painted mural there. Then they’d turn off in search of the nearest detour.

Meanwhile, mention of the trial was conspicuously nonexistent, save the newspaper stands, where a couple dailies led with shots of the former president and his codefendants. After gripping the nation back in August, the trial has ceded the limelight to more immediate concerns. Tweeted one Egyptian journalist a few minutes ago: “I remember Cairo on the first day of #MubarakTrial. EVERYONE was watching. Today, most aren’t even aware it’s happening.” Outside the courthouse, where thousands gathered during the summer, fewer than 100 showed—in comparison to the 5,000 police reportedly deployed. Following today’s largely procedural session, the court adjourned until next Monday, when the meaty portion of the trial is expected to get underway.

After snapping a few photos on Mohamed Mahmoud, I returned to the square and turned right, back onto Talaat Harb and toward my hostel to complete the final leg of my morning stroll.

Egypt Cat Blogging

I have to admit I never quite understood the whole cat blogging craze during my time at MoJo. But when I stumbled upon these guys (or gals?) on the ledge of the Alexandria cornice overlooking the Mediterranean, I had to snap a few shots. They were by far the smallest kittens I’d ever seen, each one barely the size of my fist. Oddly enough, they seemed blissfully unperturbed by the mother of all traffic jams right in front of them.

Talking Politics in Egypt

Between the spotty internet access at the hostel and my efforts to cram as much sightseeing as humanly possibly into my first week in Egypt before my friend, who joined me for the journey out, heads back to New York, I’ve had little opportunity to keep abreast of the latest political developments. This morning, though, I did catch this article in the Washington Post, which warns of a “widening rift between Egyptians who support the military regime and those want them ousted.” It references the angry and sometimes violent receptions anti-regime activists encountered this week, as they fanned out beyond Tahrir Square to spread their revolutionary message and offer proof (in several instances, on giant video screens) of the military’s brutal crackdowns against peaceful protesters. In nearby Abbasiya, for instance, residents fed up with the protests they view as further destabilizing the country held a pro-SCAF rally in support of the ruling junta at which several journalists reported being roughed up by angry crowds.

I’ve only been here a few days now and certainly can’t claim to speak to the larger dynamics at work. But based on several conversations I have had with Egyptians–admittedly all of the middle class, well-educated variety–the atmosphere strikes me as tinged with considerably more gray than the pro-SCAF vs. anti-SCAF, vocal minority vs. silent majority narrative lets on. Those I’ve spoken to seem, by and large, in wait-and-see mode, keen on a swift transition to democracy but wary about things getting out of control. They’re skeptical about the military’s intentions but resigned to the fact that only the military can provide any semblance of security for the time being.

On our drive out to the pyramids on Friday, our guide asked us what we thought about the whole political situation. I demurred, safely responding that I thought that things were complicated and difficult to assess from the outside, before turning the question back on her. She was exactly what you might imagine a young Egyptian activists to be–twentysomething, highly-educated, dressed in a Gap sweatshirt and trendy jeans. But she was no fan of her fellow youth in the streets. She had supported the revolution, she explained, but couldn’t understand all the fuss these days. Elections were proceeding apace, no? (She proudly informed us that she’d voted in the first round of Egypt’s ongoing three-stage parliamentary election.) For now, she argued, the military was needed to preserve order. Was she concerned that SCAF might not cede power as promised after the presidential elections penciled in for June? She wasn’t. “If they don’t, there will be another revolution, and they know that.”

The next day, we met up with a couple young Egyptians–one a recent grad of American university in Cairo, the other still a student there. As we toured the breathtaking mosques and churches that dot the skyline of Old Cairo, the conversation naturally turned to politics. “It’s complicated,” one of them explained. “We want to see change, but we’re not sure what happens. Sometimes SCAF appears to be for democracy, sometimes it doesn’t.” Taking him to be one of the passive sympathizers whom the demonstrators are always imploring to join them in the streets, I asked if he had friends who were participating in the rallies in Tahrir. “Oh, I was there yesterday,” he replied, referring to Friday’s “restoring honor” demonstration that drew some 50,000 people to the square. “I go quite often.” At this point, we were wandering around an enclosed complex of a couple mosques and, of all things, the National Police Museum. I wondered if the large crowds would cause him to temper his words, but he carried on as before, alternating between sober analyses of the political climate and pointed jokes at the military’s expense. (Like most Egyptians his age, he’ll soon be conscripted.) Our trek continued through the narrow alleys of Islamic Cairo, where pickup trucks hauling gasoline drums and giant sacks of cotton sped through alleyways hardly wide enough to squeeze two pedestrians through at a time. Campaign posters for the local Muslim Brotherhood candidate adorned  nearly every lamp post. Yet amid the frenzied scene, lent a festive air by a smattering of Christmas lights, I seriously doubted anyone was talking politics.

Only in Tahrir itself was evidence of the ongoing conflict in plain sight. When my friend and I traipsed through in the early afternoon, the previous day’s crowds were gone. A handful of flag-waving protesters remained camped out in the middle of the square, unheeded by the circling swarm of cars around them. Off to the south end, fresh graffiti on a nearby building reading “FUCK SCAF” and “No SCAF” testified to simmering tensions, as did the concrete monstrosity one block beyond, erected by the military last week to seal off access to government buildings. A few curious observers approached and gazed for a while at the inartful barricade, but that was all. No one seemed to be spoiling for a fight on this day.

Once again, a tenuous calm seems to have taken hold in Cairo. How long it’ll last is anyone’s guess.

Anti-SCAF graffiti in Tahrir Square.Anti-SCAF graffiti in Tahrir Square.

A wall erected by the military last week on Qasr el-Neil Street.A wall erected by the military last week on Qasr el-Neil Street.

First Impressions

Greetings from Egypt! I’m writing this from my very noisy hostel room above Abdel Kahlik Tharwat Street in downtown Cairo, where, per usual, about 50 cars are trying to jam their way through the nearest intersection, which has no traffic light, no stop signs, and, for the moment, no police officer to maintain even a semblance of order. So, in other words, a clusterfuck. And lots of blaring horns sure to last long into the night. Fortunately for me, I’m so indescribably tired and jet-lagged that within the next hour, I’m sure to pass out cold for the night. Maybe even in the middle of writing this. Hopefully not.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After all, it was just over 30 hours ago that I officially commenced my great Egyptian reporting adventure with a largely uneventful flight from JFK to Cairo. Ordinarily I’d skip over this banal detail, as I’m generally not one to fret about planes falling out of the sky. However this time I felt some justification in indulging my superstitious side; literally an hour after booking my flight a couple months ago, I opened up Steven Cook’s new book on Egypt to the part where he devotes, I could swear, half a chapter to the famous Egyptair crash in ’99 that killed everyone onboard. So let’s just say I was mildly relieved for the mostly turbulence-free flight. Not that I thought anything was going to happen or anything, but, you know.

I am, however, one hundred percent convinced that I’m biologically incapable of falling asleep on airplanes. And so, those ten hours of not sleeping left ample time to watch three entire bad movies as well as sample my first non-alcoholic malt beverage courtesy of a generous seat neighbor who was en route to Syria to visit family. After drinking, I could only presume that non-alcoholic malt beverages are an acquired taste.

Which brings me back to the traffic. When I finally arrived in Cairo around noon local time, I was, as after all overnight flights, a zombie. In fact, I vividly recall my maiden trans-Atlantic trip to Italy for a soccer tournament. Unfortunately wedged between the driver and translator in the front seat of the team van, I must have passed out at least a half-dozen times in the driver’s lap. I inferred by his wilder-than-normal gesticulations that he wasn’t too thrilled.

But as I hopped in the cab for the 40 minute ride across Cairo to my hostel, I quickly realized there’d be no dozing off this time. My driver zigged and zagged his way through a veritable horde of cars, trucks, motorcycles, camels, and pedestrians, never seeming to maneuver with any more than an inch to spare, jamming on his break about every five seconds, before accelerating wildly to squeeze between two cars along the lane marker. And the same went for just about every other driver on the road. I won’t say I was terrified–I had my seat belt on pretty tight–but moderately disconcerted would not be an overstatement. By the time I reached my destination, I couldn’t help but marvel that there aren’t multi-car pileups on the Cairo freeway several times a day.

Between the heart-in-mouth moments, I struggled through my bleary eyes to take in as much as I could of the city I’d now call home. And what struck me most of all, as it surely has many others, is Cairo’s sheer magnitude. Cairo, to put it mildly, sprawls. And when I say sprawls, I don’t mean that in the sense of a Sunbelt city with a few of dense pockets tucked inside a vast expanse of two-story colonials and shopping malls. You get the feeling that each and every inch of Cairo’s 625,000 square miles is absolutely teeming with life. Whether it was upscale Heliopolis, with its self-styled architecture, or the more slum-like neighborhoods spread out across Greater Cairo, the city seemed on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its own chaos.

Yet when a few hours later I finally took a stroll through downtown for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to find certain logic, an intimacy even, to this cacophonous mess. Just after dusk, the sidewalks buzzed with the sounds of children’s cries and the banter of old men in between drags on their hookahs. Amorous young couples shared the sidewalk with fully-veiled women. Merchant aggressively, but mostly politely, hawked their merchandise to passerby. A few moments later, the Muslim call to prayer rang out in the eastern distance, enveloping the city in its hymnal beauty. Even in this unfathomably large and confusing and polluted megalopolis, there they were–the rhythms of everyday life, the heartbeats of an at once ancient and vibrantly modern center of civilization.

More to come…

Film Review: Scenes of a Crime

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

Scenes of a Crime

NEW BOX PRODUCTIONS

86 minutes

When Adrian Thomas slams that binder to the floor, we know he’s toast. We’ve just seen excerpts from a 10-hour police interrogation where he not only confesses to killing his infant son but actually reenacts the crime. But wait: Could he have simply been acting out what the detectives said he’d done? Scenes of a Crime is a gripping study of how one homicide suspect is cajoled, soothed, threatened, and lied to in pursuit of a prosecutorial money shot. Once an exhausted and emotionally broken Thomas provides it, it’s clear that all the physical evidence in the world won’t save him. “False confession is probably the second leading cause of miscarriages of justice,” explains Richard Ofshe, an expert on false memory. “Juries don’t understand why an innocent person would confess.”

Timeline: The Best Government Money Can Buy

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

A short, shady history of how American elections are bought and paid for.

1758 George Washington’s successful campaign for the Virginia House of Burgesses spends £39 on booze to “treat” voters on Election Day ($8,130 in 2011 dollars).
1800 Thomas Jefferson hires a writer to smear President John Adams as “mentally deranged” and a “hideous hermaphroditical character.” Propagandist is imprisoned under the Sedition Act; Jefferson wins the election.
1829 President Andrew Jackson advocates rewarding loyalists with political office. Sen. William Marcy later notes approvingly, “To the victor belong the the spoils of the enemy.”

Thomas Nast/Harpers Weekly/Wikimedia

1867 In America’s first federal campaign finance reform law, Congress makes it illegal to pressure workers at naval yards for political contributions.
1872 Railroad financier Jay Cooke gives $50,000 to the Republican Party—25 percent of its budget. A historian writes of President Ulysses S. Grant, “Never before was a candidate placed under such great obligation to men of wealth.”
1875 Mark Twain: “I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.”
1883 Congress prohibits soliciting civil servants for political contributions.
1896 President William McKinley’s campaign manager hits up corporations for donations sized “according to [their] stake in the general prosperity of the country.”
1906 Accused of fundraising improprieties, President Theodore Roosevelt calls for a ban on all corporate contributions “for any political purpose,” leading to passage of the Tillman Act (named after white supremacist Sen. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman).
1911 Congress introduces individual spending limits for federal campaigns.
1943 After Congress bans political giving by unions, the Congress of Industrial Organizations forms the first PAC, skirting the restrictions by collecting campaign money outside of regular dues.
1952 VP candidate Richard Nixon delivers his “Checkers” speech, defending more than $18,000 in secret donations: “Every penny of it was used to pay for political expenses that I did not think should be charged to the taxpayers.”

billypalooza/Flickr

billypalooza/Flickr

1971 President Nixon tells his chief of staff to tell donors, “Anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000.” Dwayne Andreas, CEO of Archer Daniels Midland, later delivers $100,000 to Nixon’s secretary and helps fund the Watergate break-in.
1974 Congress imposes stricter limits on individual contributions and outside expenditures and sets up the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
1976 Buckley v. Valeo strikes down some of the new restrictions, finding that election spending is constitutionally protected speech.
1979 Newfound loopholes permit corporations and unions to give unlimited “soft money” to the Republican and Democratic national committees for “party-building activities.”
1991 Five senators, including Sen. John McCain, are found to have advocated on behalf of Charles Keating’s failing S&L after receiving a combined $1.3 million in campaign money.
1996 A California Buddhist temple illegally gives at least $65,000 to the Democratic National Committee on behalf of wealthy donors. The scandal prompts the DNC to return $3 million in donations.
1997 The Clinton administration releases a list of 938 overnight guests at the White House, many of whom slumbered in the Lincoln Bedroom. Others received coffee, golf outings, or morning jogs with the president. All told, these donors gave some $10 million to Democrats in the 1996 election.
2002 The McCain-Feingold Act bans soft money in federal elections and bans the use of corporate or union funds to make ads about candidates in the weeks before an election.

Aaron Webb/Flickr

Aaron Webb/Flickr

2005 GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay is indicted for funneling corporate money through the RNC to Texas Republicans. More than five years later, he is convicted of money laundering and sentenced to three years in prison. He’s out on bail while appealing.
2006 Lobbyist Jack Abramoff admits trading golf junkets, meals at his DC restaurant, and campaign contributions for political favors. President George W. Bush and GOP leaders rush to dump donations linked to him.
2007 The Supreme Court sides with lawyer James Bopp (who will later bring the Citizens United case) and eases limits on corporate and union-backed ads close to an election, so long as they’re not for or against candidates (wink, wink).
2010 Citizens United ruling allows corporations and unions to advocate for or against candidates at any time. Two months later, in Speechnow.org v. FEC, an appeals court strikes down limits on contributions to independent-expenditure shops. The super-PAC is born.
2011 As super-PACs proliferate, the FEC approves Stephen Colbert’s Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. Colbert exalts, “Today, we put liberty on layaway.”

Brian Hogg/Flickr

Brian Hogg/Flickr