Laura Dean on A Different Kind of Egyptian Protest

By Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 4:00 PM

Speaking of Laura Dean, she also sent me this morning the following account of ongoing and planned protests in Cairo:

It’s a hot muggy day in the restless Egyptian capital. A white haze of pollution brings the horizon closer than it should be; no chance of seeing the Pyramids from downtown today. Fuel lines have clogged the city streets for the last few days. There are whispers of conspiracies and fuel trucks seen dumping their loads into the desert. The city is waiting.

Four days from now an unknown number of Egyptians will take to the streets as part of the "Tamarod" or "Rebel" campaign. At the core of the movement, supported by all of the main opposition groups, is a petition to oust president Mohamed Morsi from office. The petitioners have called for the president to step down and temporarily hand power to the President of the Supreme Constitutional Court and schedule early presidential elections. The organizers say they have more than 15 million signatures, though those numbers are difficult to verify. Tamarod is everywhere. A fruit seller carved "Step down, Morsy" on a watermelon outside his shop and last night campaigners took to the metros to get people to sign on. Everyone I have asked so far, from NGO workers to taxi drivers to shoe store employees to lawyers and engineers, say they will be in Tahrir Square or outside the presidential palace that day. A recent poll put the president's approval rating at 32 percent.

In the meantime, in another part of the city, there is a different kind of protest going on.

A few nights ago I attended the 19th consecutive evening of the Ministry of Culture protests-cum-concerts and poetry readings. A large banner hangs above the ministry gates with the words "Art is Resistance" and "Cultural Sit-in" painted on it in large red and black writing, and a caricature of the new and controversial minister adorns one wall.

Since June 5th protestors, many of them artists, have occupied two rooms in the Culture Ministry to protest what they term the "Brotherhoodization of Culture." This includes the appointment as Minister of Alaa Abdel Aziz, who the protesters say has, in turn, appointed people who support "Brotherhood ideology" to key posts. It also includes the sacking of five Ministry of Culture employees, including the head of the Opera House. During the day, the protestors conduct their lives inside the ministry. A growing number of them sleep there overnight and the entry hall is bedecked with floor to ceiling canvases depicting ballet dancers and celebrations of Egypt’s diverse cultural heritage.

At night, their activities spill over into the street and four hours of evening entertainment unfold: poetry recitations, concerts and chanting against the regime. On June 9 the evening’s events included a performance by Egypt’s ballet company housed in the Opera House to protest comments made by Gamal Hamed, a member of the Salafi Nour Party, who sits on the Shura Council and called ballet “the art of nudity” saying that it “promotes indecency.”

These nightly events are guarded by a truckload of police officers since Brotherhood-affiliated counter demonstrators tried to break up the gathering on June 11. The Salafi party el Watan also called for the dispersal of the protests; its spokesman, Mohamed Nour, accusing them of “corrupting thought," saying, “they have been presenting only the most permissive and decadent of arts.” Both nights I attended, young policemen wandered into the crowd and seemed to be enjoying their assignment as they soaked up a bit of culture themselves.

People drifted in and out of the open ministry gates. Nearby, vendors had set up shop, now that these events had become a nightly affair, certain to draw customers. In a very residential neighborhood, one might imagine that the concerts, and the appreciative applause they engender, would annoy residents used to a quieter life. But a few nights ago people threw candy off of their balconies in support, and others gathered in the foyer of a nearby building to watch the festivities. A young female poet, Noor Abdullah, held the crowd in rapt silence as she delivered an outspoken critique of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. Later in the evening the attendees swayed and sang along to the music of Wagi Azeez, who played his oud like a folk guitar as members of the audience sang along and shouted out requests.

A bride and groom wound their way through the crowd. I wasn’t sure if they has gotten married there or wanted the protest to be their first stop as newly-weds but they seemed overjoyed to be present as the crowd parted to make way for the bride’s gown.

Under a half moon, we milled around, a few hundred people of all ages---from children to the elderly. Though most seemed on the liberal end of the political spectrum, there were many hijabs, and I saw at least one full face veil. In my experience and that of other women I asked, these protests have been a harassment-free zone, and events I would happily attend alone at night in a crowd. There was something here reminiscent of Taksim Square in Istanbul---where I was almost three weeks ago before the protests there were dispersed. There I was struck by the joyous carnival-like atmosphere, complete with line-dancing and street snacks.

These protests have their detractors though---and not just among the Salafis. One critique leveled at them is that the Ministry of Culture under the Mubarak regime was always a bastion of regime conservatism and corruption; why defend it now? A poet, el Saeed Qandeel who came all the way from the Delta governorate of Kafr el Sheikh to join the sit-in justified his decision to participate, saying "there is corruption and there is corruption" and that under Mubarak "it was not ideology that governed." He spoke to me in classical Arabic, his curly white hair protruding from beneath a blue plaid wool cap. The current regime, he said, is close-minded and only has "one idea," calling others unbelievers and heretics who do not share their views. "They say art is haram and poetry is haram and literature is haram and women are haram!"

Others suggest there is something Marie Antoinette-ish about defending ballet in a country that is threatened with bread rations, where gas stations are empty and people drive for miles to sit in fuel lines all night. It’s true, the sit-ins take place in an upscale neighborhood in central Cairo. Artist Maha Effat told me that she is there to defend the diversity of Egyptian heritage, which she describes as a blend of "Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Coptic, Islamic and Bedouin." But that she and her fellow protesters here have wider demands which are the same as those of the 2011 uprisings: bread, freedom, social justice. And no amount of criticism can take away from the fact that people are turning out in the hundreds each night for a free evening of singing and dancing and free political and artistic expression in a city roiling with tension and economic and political strife.

As June 30 approaches, the goals of the Culture Ministry protestors and those of the much larger Tamarod movement are increasingly intertwined. On that day, the artists say, the Culture Ministry will empty out and they will all head to Tahrir, where they will remain until Morsi goes.

The excitement and tension over Tamarod is building, though it is difficult to predict what exactly will transpire. Will the protests be peaceful? With they be marked by the same harassment as earlier iterations? Will Morsi actually concede? And if that all-but-unimaginable outcome were to come to pass, what sort of precedent would that set for the ouster of democratically elected presidents before the end of their term? Opposition activists say that Morsi was elected before a constitution had been adopted to define presidential powers and that his election was therefore illegitimate. But he was elected.

Whatever comes to pass, attendees say that the Culture Ministry protests recaptured some of the unity and optimism of January 2011 and express hope that that spirit will carry over to June 30.