Life under Curfew in Cairo

The days pass in an excruciating mix of tedium, stress, depression and fear.

The friendly hustle and bustle of Cairo, the hubbub and everyday chaos that redeem Cairo despite the heat, the pollution and the filth, have been replaced with a grim sense of urgency. It's 5:30 pm on a Saturday, and the street below me would normally be filled with families shopping, ambulant vendors, men smoking shisha and drinking juice, and a cacophonous stream of vehicles ranging from donkey carts to semi-trucks. Today, there is just a trickle of  traffic, mostly people on foot looking like they are in a rush to be somewhere else. A few of the neighbors glance from balconies, and the nuns in the Catholic school across the street make occasional, nervous looking appearances.

Curfew starts in an hour and a half, and the local "popular committees" have started assembling makeshift roadblocks. At one corner, local youths have dragged some sort of metal gate into the center of the road, flanked by stacked tires--motorcycles and pedestrians can pass through at will, but as the sun sets, any unfamiliar cars will be stopped.

At the other, the same youths who catcall at me every day have now appointed themselves the guardians of the neighborhoods safety, given themselves the right to decide who passes unmolested and who is turned back (or worse). Hilariously, one of them is armed with a field hockey mallet.

Yesterday, when I went to visit the local vegetable market, I saw an even flimsier blockade--a group of boys, surely no older than 15, had set up a pile of wooden vegetable crates in the middle of the street. They swaggered behind this barricade, showing off improvised weapons made from small knives lashed to electrical wire. I'm not sure which was more horrifying to consider: what would happen if these hormone-addled boys confronted some helpless person they deemed to be suspicious, or what would happen if these naive children were actually confronted with a real threat.

Khaled, who runs our local kiosk, has a machete as long as my arm stashed behind the counter. Himself a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer, he's most concerned with protecting his stock and his place of business. Not that he's completely without defiance; despite the curfew, he's operating his stall 24 hours a day. The bawwab in my building has a gun. (He has also, bless his heart, fiercely denied the presence of foreigners in the building to anyone he deems to be suspicious, including a few friends who have come to visit us.)

On my block, I feel quite safe. We've always consciously tried to cultivate good relations with the doormen, parking attendants and vendors on the block, cooking up extra portions for them when we have dinner parties, even (in the case of my roommate) bringing back souvenirs from vacations. Now, as the government is ratcheting xenophobic tension, we will have to count on their goodwill to protect us if things get ugly.

Apart from occasional trips outside for sustenance or sanity's sake, my roommates and I mostly stay indoors, pinned to twitter and television, consumed with worry (and, at times, I must confess, a touch of envy) for friends who are out in the streets on assignment. Since June 30, we've been playing a game called "gunshots or fireworks?" when we hear explosions outside. In the days of widespread euphoria that followed Morsi's ouster, our default assumption was fireworks, unless we heard the distinct rhythm of automatic fire. Now, we assume gunshots—nobody is celebrating anymore.

Last night, we decided to hold a curfew party—what else does one do when there is no transportation or entertainment after 7pm on a Friday? On the way over, one friend, an Egyptian-American who works for the UN, found himself pinned down under live fire in a gas station in Giza, when he passed too close to a Muslim Brotherhood march that was coming under attack. With bullets still flying, he phoned to ask if the party was still on (it was, and he eventually made it over). Guests from downtown were unable to come, since Metro stations downtown were closed.

Sending people home was another challenge, checking the news to look for a window of opportunity when there wasn't gunfire near the main roads through downtown. Thankfully, the friends who insisted on leaving have all made if safely, facing nothing worse than checkpoints like the ones set up on my street.

On top of this all, we stand by helplessly as the country descends into darkness. Both sides are lying, both manipulating death tolls and sequences and narratives to suit their own ends. (Although, it must be said, the evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the state has used disproportionate force agains largely unarmed demonstrators.) Both are dehumanizing the other, calling them terrorists or un-Islamic or un-Egyptian. Some cheer the murders of protestors in Rabaa and el Nahda, or bay for blood outside Fatah mosque, others call for religious war, incite violence against religious minorities. There are few voices of reason or sanity. It is hard to imagine how these wounds will heal.

I have no answers, no solutions, no glib and cheery note to end on, I'm staring at the screen groping for words. It's 6:10 in Cairo, and darkness is falling again.

A Grain of Truth

Earlier this week I took a trip to Sharqeya province, an agricultural area in the Nile Delta, for a report I'm working on about the wheat harvest. I had hoped to talk to wheat farmers, traders and granary workers to get a better idea of what's actually going on with the harvest. Instead, the only definite conclusion I drew from the trip is that Egypt's farmers and Egypt's government are living in parallel universes. That, or one group is lying.

Egypt is primarily a country of small farmers--the average holding is about the size of a regulation football pitch. Among the many results of this phenomenon is that it's nearly impossible to make accurate predictions about how large the wheat harvest will be.

In countries like Russia or the United States, where huge mono-crop farms are the norm, you can look at satellite images, see how many thousand hectares are planted with wheat, multiply that by average yields in years with similar climactic conditions, and come up with a pretty solid guess.

Here in Egypt, you have a patchwork of tiny little plots, each subdivided between grain, vegetables and animal fodder. The only way to get a real figure would be to go plot-by-plot across the whole country. Of course, nobody's doing that, so predictions about the harvest often have more to do with politics than hectares under cultivation.

There's no way to accurately gauge the harvest until it comes in. Actually, as it happens,  there's not really a way to accurately gauge the yield even after harvest; the government pays above-market prices for local wheat, so traders turn an easy profit by mixing in cheap imported wheat with the local wheat they sell. Since the imported wheat is better quality, and since the government has a vested interest in inflating the domestic crop yield, it's a pretty cozy set up for all involved.

But I digress.

This year's predictions varied even more widely than usual. The government is confidently proclaiming that this will be a record-breaking harvest, at 9.5 million tones. If they can convince the public they've led the country to new heights in the production of Egypt's staple food, the ruling party will score a big political win.

Meanwhile, independent observers are putting forward figures of around 6 or 7 million tonnes. If these lower figures are accurate, it's not necessarily a huge deal.  A low harvest won't automatically translate into a food crisis. If Egypt can cough up the money, there will be plenty of Black Sea wheat on the market at about the time supplies would run out for the subsidized bread program. They would't need much more than a 1.5 billion dollars worth of wheat imports to tide them over to the end of the year. Yes, Egypt is broke, but that's still pretty do-able.

But, if those lower figures are correct, it would mean the government is lying about the availability of a vital food staple. It also means that key ministries, including agriculture and supply, are letting this crucial numbers be politicized and falsified.

Among the farmers that I spoke with, all but one said yields were lower than last year; the other guy said they were about they same. Diesel, which was predicted to be a problems, seems not to have been, at least in Sharqeya (also, coincidentally, President Morsi's home province). Fertilizer, however, was an issue, despite government claims that everything had gone perfectly smoothly. According to farmers I spoke to, the government-affiliated cooperatives, which are supposed to provide cheap fertilizers,  didn't have enough available, leaving cash-strapped farmers to either buy it dear on the open market or go without.

But the most striking moments of the day came when I visited two state owned granaries. One farmer told me that his local granary failed to open on time, forcing him to keep his threshed and bagged grain sitting in the field. (Which I could see with my own eyes). Hearing that, I decided to swing by the granary, where the supervisor (a public employee) cheerfully informed me that far from being late, renovations to the granary were two months ahead of schedule.

Mind you, the wheat harvest is nearly over, and Egypt has about 7,000 years of experience to draw on in predicting when the wheat harvest will come. Workmen were still running around the parking-garage like structure. The metal plate for the grain scale was leaned up against a wall. This was Monday, and he informed me that "we will be open Wednesday, inshallah, or actually, Saturday," and everything was going swimmingly. I tried pointing out that the harvest started almost a month ago, and I had seen grain piled up in nearby fields, so it seemed to me that they were running rather behind.  But I couldn't get him to crack.

Later in the day, I stopped by another granary. This one was open, complete with huge piles of grain in the open air, swooping birds, idling trucks, and everything else that marks government grain storage. Before he chased off my photographer, this supervisor (who, I should add, was wielding an enormous metal spike), confidently assured me that much more grain was coming in than had the previous year. I asked him for numbers. He told me oh, well, the yield is not up here, but in the country as a whole, it definitely is.

At which point I decided it was about time to go home to Cairo (with a brief pit-stop to try and photograph the granary from an overpass).

Interest rate cartoon

Since it's come to my attention that I haven't posted anything in a while, it seems time to confess to my secret double life as a stick-figure artiste. Take a look at this cartoon I drew for my lovely friend Farah's blog Rebel Economy.

Sadly, I have just about reached the outer limits of my artistic abilities, but I'm still interested in exploring ways explain economic concepts in fun, simple ways. Too often, I think both financial institutions and the journalists who are supposed to be monitoring them rely too heavily on jargon and technical terms. While this language can be a useful shorthand for people "in the know," it alienates ordinary people, giving them the impression that economic news--often events or decisions that will have a huge effect on everybody living in a society--is only relevant for and accessible to specialists.

(Also, to be frank, I get the impression that a lot of the journalists covering economic news, in Egypt at least, don't really understand it very well themselves. This results in coverage that consists of doing little more than regurgitating press releases, instead of interpreting, simplifying, explaining or challenging statements from ministries and banks.)

To that end, I drew a series of these cartoons on monetary policy (available by special request), and am planning to do more (which will end up on Rebel Economy or here).


On the abysmal state of research funding in Egypt

"I’ve seen university departments, research departments, work with a five-figure annual research budget for 2000 PhD students, and double that number of Master's students.

"That’s why you find that most marine biologists in Egypt are fish biologists. Not fisheries—fish. Because their study usually comprises going to the fish market and buying fish, cutting it up, and then cooking it for lunch.

"They don’t have the money to go diving, or get a boat, a research vessel, and go out, or get proper sampling done in their labs. There is no other possibility."

—Ahmed El Droubi of Greenpeace Arab World

(This, a side note in a recent interview. For more information, I'd recommend this Christian Science Monitor article about Egypt's failing education system.)

Restitution deals a Pyrrhic victory for Egypt

First, Egyptian prosecutors agree to settle with Mubarak  and former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif,  with the state accepting cash compensation in exchange for settling charges relating to the "Ahram gifts" case.  (Officials were accused of accepting luxury gifts, bought with public funds, from Al Ahram newspapers.) Now, businessman and Mubarak crony Hussein Salem is proposing that corruption charges be dropped against him, in exchange for handing over 50 percent of his properties in Spain and abroad.

All of this is possible under a Mubarak-era law that grants officials accused of corruption amnesty in exchange for returning what they stole. Basically, the government treats these profiteers like a mother might treat a child who got caught stealing a pack of bubblegum from the store: making them apologize to the manager and return what they stole.

(Although one assumes a strict parent would at least give a stern lecture and take away some privileges from the child. As far as I know, beyond returning property, none of these deals has involved so much as a slap on the wrist.)

To me, this seems absurd, because these people are not just misguided kids who can undo the effects of their crimes simply by putting back what they stole. First of all, any property or funds acquired  have a knock-on effect for the asset holder—assets appreciate, interest payments go to misappropriators instead of rightful owners, companies or individuals with more assets find it easier to secure credit or investors. I'm not seeing these sorts of secondary benefits factored into restitution deals. Second, let's not forget that corruption does real damage to Egypt. The public money that was stolen should've gone to things like education, healthcare, or infrastructure—real people were hurt in real ways when it didn't. And let's not forget lost opportunity:  other investors, who might have had business ideas that would've created decent jobs and helped the economy, got shut out in favor of cronies. Returning a land deed is not going to fairly compensate the Egyptian people for those losses.

I can understand the desire for quick wins in a time of economic crisis, but these repatriation deals seem like hollow victories. First, because in many cases, what's being returned is land and property. (At least that is my understanding based on an interview with the Illicit Gains Authority's Ahmed Saad in November) That's great and all, but getting back, say, LE9 billion worth of state land does not translate into a LE9 billion bump for the treasury.

Furthermore, we need to remember that Egypt still has not completed its investigations into stolen assets.  Take Hussein Salem. We don't actually know how much money he stole, or where he's hiding it all. Yet prosecutors are supposed to take the word of a known thief and liar about what would constitute 50 percent of his own assets? And in the process abandon investigations that might actually discover the real figure, and help Egypt eventually recover 100 percent of what he stole? I understand well that asset recovery investigations are lengthy, complex processes that currently seem beyond Egypt's institutional capacity. That still doesn't mean it makes sense to scupper a longterm goal for a short-term PR boost.

Worse, I don't see how these deals to anything to prevent corruption in the future.

Think about it. Deals like these presents corruption as a gamble with virtually no risks: if you get away with it, you profit hugely; if you get caught, you're not really any worse off than you were before. It doesn't take a crack bookie to figure out that those odds are hardly a disincentive to criminal behavior in the future.

"What is our way forward?"

I recently had the following exchange with an official from the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, which (as its name suggests) is responsible for apportioning water among Egypt's millions of farmers, small and large

Until now, it’s not clear, the [economic] policy of the state. It’s not clear. Are we going to a socialist system? Are we going to a liberal system? … What is our way forward? If the socialists come to form the government, they have their ideas, and the government should control everything, and manage everything. If the liberals come—or the Islamists, because their ideas depend on the liberal thinking—we can use the open market and the best man can have the most chance.
Q:And right now you're just waiting to see?
A: Now we're waiting.

We were talking specifically about managing water for irrigation—this is an enormous issue in Egypt, a water poor country, in which subsidized water is granted to farmers, who use about 86% of Egypt's potable water, often in highly inefficient ways. Egypt urgently needs to make tough decisions about how to apportion resources. Its groundwater and its quota of Nile water are fixed, and together they are no longer sufficient to provide water for drinking, food, and fiber crops for the country's rapidly growing population.  (The UN standard for "water poverty" is 1000m3 per person per year, Egypt currently has roughly 700m3 per person, and less every year) Without going into excruciating detail* Egypt has a number of different routes it could take: subsidizing water efficient irrigation equipment instead of water; encouraging small farmers to grow cash crops for export, thus raising foreign exchange which can be used to import staples from water-rich countries; prioritizing large scale operations, which, through economies of scale, use scarce resources more efficiently; tightly regulate agriculture to force small farmers to use water more efficiently, centralize crop patterns and resource management; stop subsidizing agriculture altogether, and let already impoverished farmers sink or swim, in hopes that their children will train for careers in another sector. All of these options (except, I think, the first) are extreme, and most would cause pain to farmers, who are already suffering greatly. But the fact is the status quo (which is basically a veneer of neoliberalism over a decayed socialist foundation, and relies on draining non-renewable aquifers) is hurting everybody, farmers included, and is leading the country to the brink of a truly disastrous water shortage.

People in the ministries know this. Say what you will about corruption and inefficiency in the bureaucracy, if you go to mid-level technical and research positions, you will meet scores of civil servants who are committed and well-trained, and genuinely want to do what's best for the Egyptian people. And these people have their hands completely tied, because neither the SCAF nor the Ikhwan seem to have an actual program or vision for how to govern the country. (Rule, perhaps, but not govern.) Nor is the recently approved draft constitution much help. It promises, in vague terms, to promote "balanced sustainable development" and "protect production, increase income and guarantee social justice, solidarity and welfare" but does not actually define those terms in any meaningful way.
As the conversation above illustrates, people working in government don't know, even in the most basic sense, what kind of economic system they will be operating in. This, of course, makes it completely impossible to make long-term plans for water management, or housing policy, or healthcare or pretty much anything else. And in the meantime, the government is spending unwisely, and borrowing at ruinous rates to do so, while the people get poorer than ever.

I remember a year ago, people assured me that once Egypt had a parliament, decisions would be made, and the country would get moving again. Then, when that failed to yield results, people said Egypt just needed a president. Then, a cabinet. Then, a constitution. Now, I'm starting to hear that we just need a parliament again (as was the case in the conversation above). But I don't believe it, that it's that simple, that one more trip to the ballot box will solve things. And I'm afraid for Egypt.

*for those who want excruciating detail, I recently wrote a very long report on the subject, which I can send at your request.

Eight “Democratically Elected” Autocrats

In response to the oft-repeated argument that Morsi was democratically elected and therefore definitionally cannot be described as governing in an undemocratic fashion, I have compiled here a (probably incomplete) list of world leaders who came to power by popular vote, and then proceeded to behave in distinctly un-democratic ways. It's also worth noting that many of these men came from civilian backgrounds, and were respected professionals, anti-colonial activists, or legislators before taking office.
I’ve included only leaders who rose to executive office through multiparty elections, excluding those (like Nasser), who gained some sort of imprimatur through referendums or one-party “elections”; those (like Mubarak), who first came to power without elections but later used them to maintain a façade of legitimacy; and those (like Hitler and Mussolini) who gained prominence through parliamentary elections, but took executive authority by extra-legal means.

  • Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan, 2003-present; Son and anointed successor of Heydar Aliyev, Ilham came to power in 2003 with a somewhat suspicious 76.84% of the vote. The opposition is unable to hold mass meetings in city centers, the independent press is suppressed, and his government has been listed by Transparancy International as one of the most corrupt in the world.
  • Juan Maria Bordaberry, Uruguay, 1972-1976; Elected in 1971, while Uruguay was embroiled in a counter-insurgency campaign against the leftist Tupamaro guerillas, Bordaberry signed off on a 1973 “soft coup”  against his own government that let him keep his title but transferred ultimate authority to the military. Then, he suspended the constitution and banned political parties and ruled by decree until 1976, when the military ousted him. During his presidency, more than 5,000 political prisoners were held, many of them tortured and killed. In 2006, Bordaberry was convicted of numerous crimes, including planning the murder of four opposition leaders. He died under house arrest in 2011.
  • Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia, 1964-1991; A nationalist leader and former political prisoner, Kaunda became Prime Minister in 1964, after his United National Independence Party won national elections. In October of the same year, he became the first president of newly independent Zambia, a position he held until international pressure forced him to hold multi-party elections in 1991. During his presidency, Kaunda declared a state of emergency, banned all opposition parties, controlled a rubber-stamp parliament, and promoted a cult of personality.
  • Ferdinand Marcos, Philippines, 1965-1986; A brilliant lawyer and successful senator, Marcos won his first election, in 1965, more or less fairly. The same cannot be said for his second (he famously withdrew $56 million from the state treasury to fund his campaign), after which he proclaimed martial law. By the time he was overthrown by a popular uprising in 1986,  he and his family had amassed $5-10 billion in ill-gotten gains (and over 1,000 pairs of shoes), and empowered a security apparatus responsible for the murder  of more than 3,000 political opponents, and the torture or imprisonment of over 100,000 more.
  • Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe, 1987-present; Gaining prominence for his role in the African liberation movement, Mugabe first won general elections in 1980 as Prime Minister, then assumed presidency in 1987 when the position of Prime Minister was abolished. He was re-elected in 1990, 1996, 2002, and (sort-of) 2008, in elections marred by claims of vote-rigging, violence, and intimidation.  His administration restricts freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and brutally suppresses opposition –most notably, perhaps, the 2007 crackdown on Morgan Tsvangirai‘s Movement for Democratic Change, and subsequent political violence employed to secure a second-round victory over Tsvangirai in 2008.
  • Francisco Macías Nguema, Equatorial Guinea, 1968-1979: Despite having thrice failed the civil service exam, Macías Nguema was elected as president of soon-to-be independent Equatorial Guinea in what was generally held to be a free and fair election. From there, Genocide Watch summarizes thus: After his election in September 1968 he installed a single-party system and assumed all powers, including the legislature and the judiciary. During his bloody rule approximately one third of the population was either exiled or murdered, targeting in particular the Bubi people. President Macías Nguema was notorious for his arbitrary executions of entire villages and families. He held mass executions in football stadiums while loudspeakers blared "Those were the days my friend. We thought they'd never end." In 1979 he was overthrown by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. The former president was put on trial and executed. The charges included the crime of genocide.”
  • Apolo Milton Obote, Uganda, 1966-1971, 1980-1985; One of the architects of Ugandan independence, Obote actually served as president twice (with a horrific Idi Amin interlude from 1971-1979). He became Prime Minister by legitimate means in 1962, but suspended the constitution, declared a state of emergency and seized the presidency in March 1966. In 1971, his brutal regime was overthrown by the even-more-brutal Idi Amin. After Idi Amin was ousted by Tanzanian troops in 1979, Obote got another chance, winning highly dubious multiparty elections in 1980. A guerilla war followed, accompanied by retribution meted out on civilians by Obote’s army; at the time Uganda had one of the worst human rights records in the world. Obote was ousted by a military coup in 1985, and died in exile.
  • Charles Taylor, Liberia, 1997-2003; Following the peace agreement that ended the First Liberian Civil War (a conflict he helped initiate), Taylor won a landslide victory in the 1975 presidential elections, campaigning on the slogan (!)"He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him." Despite this promising campaign platform, opposition to Taylor’s rule sparked the Second Liberian Civil War. In 2003, the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone charged Taylor with war crimes, and international pressure forced him to resign in August of that year. In April 2012, Taylor was convicted of 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Egyptian Army's Messianic Self Image

I have, with a certain amount of amusement, been following this evening's ping-ponging back and forth about whether the Egyptian army did or did not call for a national dialogue,
 and whether the president will or will not be part of such (possibly non-existent) dialogue or will instead sponsor his own little soirée to see who has more friends. (I am picturing here a bunch of bearded men in stripy pajamas making giddy late-night Facebook decrees.)

As public communications debacle, it's fairly entertaining in the generally tragicomic spirit of the times. But that shouldn't obscure some very serious questions: why are the security forces still serving as independent political actors? And why are some people who claim to be "democrats" supporting this?

I find myself haunted by a passage from an essay by Guillermo O’Donnell and Phillippe Schmitter in Neil Kritz's seminal 1995 collection "Transitional Justice."* Their essay discusses the fallacy of transitional governments trying to purchase social stability by granting security forces amnesty for crimes committed during the dictatorship. It's well worth reading in its entirety, as Kritz's entire three-volume collection, but the argument that really sticks with me is this:

failing to hold the military to account for past abuses “reinforce[s] the sense of impunity and immunity of the armed forces” and encourages a  “messianic self-image” of the military as  “the institution ultimately interpreting and ensuring the highest interests of the nation.”

This article was written almost 20 years ago, but sounds so very, very much like what is going on right now in Egypt. Thus, it seems perhaps worth reflecting on their conclusions as well:

To counter this “messianic self-image,” O’Donnell and Schmitter argue that skillfully handled trials can be used to reinforce the failures of authoritarianism in the minds of both the military and the public, reinforcing rather than threatening a nascent democracy. By contrast, a transition process in which past human rights violations go unpunished may, in and of itself, contribute to social and political instability in the new democracy.

*I must confess here that I, unfortunately, don't have the original with me in Egypt, and am relying here on a paper I wrote about five years ago. The original citation is: O’Donnell and Schmitter, “Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies” in Kritz, ed.,  Transitional Justice: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, Volume I. (Washington: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1995) pp. 59 – 60.

Sheep and Other Creatures

Lately, I've frequently heard Morsi and his supporters derided as "sheep" who blindly follow orders from the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. So, when I went out to the presidential palace Friday night, I wasn't particularly surprised to discover that sheep were a popular trope in opposition graffiti.

 Here is a picture of a sheep running off of a cliff (I think)

Here is a picture of a sheep running off of a cliff (I think)

 Here is a sheep saying "maaaaaa"

Here is a sheep saying "maaaaaa"

Here is a sheep with a Morsi sticker over its face. The text above says "Leave you sheeeep!" The text below says "Muslim Brotherhood = felool (remnants of the old regime)"

But I have to say I was a little surprised to see this wee fellow:



Any idea what's going on here? A dinosaur in a tiara? A wallaby-horse hybrid? Or just a sheep, as drawn by a Cairene who doesn't get out of the city enough?

Technical Difficulties

I've just moved to a new server and a new CMS—partly for a fresh look, at partly because I'd CSS'ed myself into a corner on the old site and over the last year, my coding skills have deteriorated to the point where unpicking the mess just seemed too daunting.

The site went down overnight, and a few things got a little scrambled in the transition (mostly just formatting and tags), which I'll be working to fix. Things here are still a bit bare-bones, as you can see. However, I hope to build up a bit more here, and get back into posting regularly. If nothing else, I've got quite a back-stock of photos to start uploading.

Tahrir Square cleared

Tahrir Square Cleared by Military August 1These photos are from August 1, but better late than never, right? It was quite difficult to photograph on this day, with foreigners particularly singled out for confiscation of cameras/memory cards. In fact, I myself nearly had my camera taken from me by soldiers—fortunately, a decade of violin lessons left me with an unusually strong grip, so let it never be said that music is a waste of time.

The new Red Line

The conditions left me shooting on the fly or from the hip, so none of these photos are great. But for the sake of posterity, they can be found here.


Sinai I returned to Cairo Tuesday night, after a few days rest on the beach in Sinai. I won't even pretend to have the background necessary to comment usefully on the recent attacks along the Israeli border. One observation though: during my brief visit, I was struck by both how heavily militarized the region is, and by how completely ineffective that militarization appeared to me to be.

Taking the bus from Cairo to the Red Sea and back, one passes through numerous military checkpoints. However, the only object of these checkpoints, at least that I could discern, was to single out all non-Arab passengers for a passport check. (Which, in my case, consisted of thumbing ineptly through my documents for a minute or two, finding an Egyptian visa from three years ago, and then tossing them back.) I was tempted to ask what they were actually looking for: Dangerous visa-overstayers? Israeli operatives too unsophisticated to travel on false documents?

Like so many things (the US's TSA, for example, or the fake metal detectors in my Jakarta office), this strikes me as typical security-state mentality—A big show of weaponry and personnel, a flexing of muscles, but no discernible strategy.

More Scenes from Tahrir

TahrirA woman sleeps beneath revolutionary graffiti on the Mogamma building.

Revolutionary Graffiti, Tahrir Square I've been told the green lettering reads "revolution," growing out of the red lettering for "martyrs"

Vendor in Tahrir Square

I really have no idea what to say about this particular fashion statement