Egypt: What’s different

The past couple weeks have been my first in Cairo since the January 25th revolution. As soon as I arrived I was eager to identify tangible changes in a city I used to know more than any other. (Of course, not all changes are tangible.) So what follows is a list, in no way intended to serve as substantial political analysis, of just that. It is a list based completely on my own observations and some anecdotal evidence, but if you know me then you know where I’m coming from, and this list might help you to understand Egypt how I see it, as well as Egypt as it is, a tiny bit better.

1. Election posters.

Because of Egypt’s high illiteracy rate, candidates are also represented on ballots with a symbol. As seen here one man’s is a ladder, and the other has the eye of Horus.

The very fist thing that was obviously different to me, that I noticed on my first walk outside my parents’ apartment in Zamalek, were these election posters pasted over walls everywhere. Since this is a country that had not had “real” elections in decades, posters like these are completely out of place to me. Before, if anyone’s face graced public spaces, it was Mubarak’s. Though when I visited exactly two years ago, we also spotted a couple posters of Gamal Mubarak, the President’s son, who was repeatedly described in the foreign press as being “groomed” to replace the sickly Hosni. I remember the ominous feeling that gave me, the prospect of this cruel dictatorship continuing as before with a newer, younger face, a prospect that pleased no Egyptian that I knew.

This time around, I’ve seen Mubarak’s face I believe a total of three times, and in no positive context–primarily in graffiti critical of his regime. Today, it is faces of anonymous Egyptian citizens-women included–that cover the walls of the city.

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La Défense

It’s not in the news, barely even in French news, but there is an Occupy encampment here in Paris. It’s just not at Hôtel de Ville. It’s at La Défense, Paris’ main financial district on the Western edge of the city that emerged in the 70s and 80s and is now the largest purpose-built business district in Europe. The district completes the Westernmost end of the Axe historique, which is a straight line leading from the Louvre through the Champs-Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe and ending at La Grande Arche, the iconic modern monument of La Défense. Originally, the axe historique allowed the King a grand vista from the Louvre (his palace) straight to the Western end of the city.

It was there that I went last weekend to attend the general assembly of Occupons La Défense. I had never been to La Défense before, always being vaguely curious about its famous architecture, so as I first stepped off the metro I was immediately struck by the enormity of La Grande Arche, and the glitz of the surrounding financial buildings. Considering Paris is one of the most well-preserved European cities, with countless buildings and cathedrals hundreds of years old and only one skyscraper, this modern outpost could be Paris’ polar opposite. According to Wikipedia, construction of La Grande Arche began in 1985 after Danish architect Johann Otto von Spreckelsen and Danish engineer Erik Reitzel won a design competition initiated by then-French president François Mitterand. Apparently, they intended the monument to serve as a 20th-century version of the Arc de Triomphe, honoring humanity and humanitarian ideals rather than military victories. Of course, the building was inaugurated with grand military parades at the bicentennial of the French Revolution. And looking at it today, the stark grey and silver angles of the structure remind me of anything but “humanitarian ideals.”

The Grande Arche would not fit in my viewfinder

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The revolution will be Facebooked

I have been following Occupy Oakland and now Occupy Cal at every possible spare moment. I can’t help but notice a sort of irony, that part of the reason I wanted to move to Paris was because I felt that the center of any kind of substantial upheaval was more likely to be here, and that there would be so many more people who share my views and that I could connect with. I thought it would be a long time before people in the United States took to the streets in a rage, even though that was OBVIOUSLY what they should be doing. Well, I’ll be damned, that is exactly what is happening now. And it began as soon as I left.  But sure, I lament that I can’t be there, but mostly I’m just so proud, proud of Oaklanders and Berkeleyites, and proud of people around the world who are fed up and not afraid to say it. It’s been a long time since I’ve found something to be this inspiring. Sorry I doubted you, Bay Area.

Watching Oakland from Paris like I watched Tahrir from Berkeley.

These pictures in particular have been shared repeatedly on Facebook, along with other related pictures, videos, and articles. Though its significance is uncertain, it’s definitely encouraging to witness the virtual show of solidarity in the form of copious “likes” and shares. As much as Facebook is (unfortunately) able to transform someone’s “great workout at the gym” into international NewsFeed fame, every once in a while it gets dominated by real issues and you can literally see the message, in this case “Occupy,” being communicated from person to person. That’s social networking I can get on board with.The following picture was especially popular among Berkeley friends, after Berkeley police beat non-violent student protesters with batons. It has been shared on Facebook with an excerpt of Chancellor Birgeneau’s subsequent, and rather patronizing, e-mail message to the campus community: