Death on the Nile

Former Seattle City Councilmember and veteran NBC international correspondent Jim Compton was in Tahrir Square this week as the army went after protesters.

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An angry crowd shouts in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Former Seattle City Councilmember and veteran NBC international correspondent Jim Compton was in Tahrir Square this week as the army went after protesters.

I don’t know for sure if he died, but the young man was unconscious and bleeding profusely from an abdominal wound. It was Monday night (Nov. 21), and I was watching protestors flee an army column clearing a street leading into Tahrir Square. There were the pops of gunshots from the military as seven men — fellow protestors — half-carried, half-dragged him back from the advancing troops. Screaming with rage, they stuffed him, limp and unconscious, into the back seat of an aging Fiat. He left a large pool of blood on the street.

Events I saws in central Cairo are an ominous prelude to the parliamentary elections set for next week, which were meant to set the stage for peaceful constitution-writing and a presidential election.

Is this the painful birthing of an unfinished revolution, or death throes of a failed revolt?  Sixty years of military rule have deprived Egyptians of any experience of civil society, and they are utterly unprepared for a quick transition to participatory government.  Unfortunately, the army is no more acquainted with civil society than the larger nation, and it moves instinctively to contain disturbance. But the imposition of order drifts toward a return to tyranny.

Renewal and hope are going sour. Egypt today still faces continuation of military dictatorship, which has not ended since 1952.

Those of us who love Egypt have been hoping for a process leading from popular uprising to a just secular state. What we are seeing, however,  is the persistence of  60-year-old institutions of state power and security — resistant to change and jealous of their power.

The scene in Tahrir is bizarre. The nut vendors are there with their little carts, toasting almonds over charcoal. Cotton candy vendors (I am not making this up) carry big poles with the pink fluffy sweet, as if at a Mariner’s game. The ground was littered with the charred remains of tents burned by the army after their unsuccessful attempt to clear the square on Sunday. Little knots of the ultra-devout (recognized by their skullcaps, beards, and shaved upper lips) were holding caucuses. The Muslim Brotherhood called the initial rally last weekend, not expecting an outburst on this scale. But the growing demonstrations have unleashed a new wave of rage, not at Mubarak tyranny, but against the military’s transparent manipulation of the political transition.

Who controls the narrative? Egyptian TV, and the pan-Arab networks  Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, broadcast a 24/7 feed from Tahrir, glowing with a  sense of  looming anarchy.  But 200 yards from Tahrir Square you can wander the narrow winding streets of the old Maspero quarter, where Cairenes still sit in  traditional coffee shops, with their gurgling water pipes — scenes a millennium old.  I saw a tiny but noisy political rally where organizers were courting a crowd of about  thirty with a screeching amplifier and strings of lights — hardly pandemonium. Cairo is worried, and tense, but there is hardly anarchy.

If Egyptians exulted in the end of the Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak police state, they are not necessarily now yearning for some abstract Lockean utopia. Rid of Mubarak, they want their great country back. They want to get back tourism, and restore a semblance of government.

An economic tragedy is looming. In the famous Khan-al-Khalili market, my wife bought a pretty alabaster egg for her sister, for about $1.40. Saad Abd El-Shaheed, proprietor of the tidy curio shop, said she was his first customer of the day, and probably the last. The legendary Groppi coffee house, near Opera Square (a kind of Deux Magots long ago deserted by Cairo’s intellectuals) did not have its  usual throng of tourists. Two dozen empty tables, and a case of stale pastries. Some estimates say tourism has fallen 75 percent, but my friends said 95 percent may have vanished. American investors were taken by surprise. A grand new Ritz-Carlton, a block from Tahrir and the Egyptian Museum, has stopped construction.

The revolution struck a blow against rampant corruption and the traditional bribe-ocracy, where baksheesh from pennies to millions lubricated social relations.  Bureaucrats who once extracted tips for favors large or small are now marginalized. People laugh at them. We saw a museum official try to threaten a guide by saying, “my uncle is a police inspector,” to which the guide replied, laughing, “It doesn’t work that way any more.” But discredited government is its own problem, as it nourishes a crippling uncertainty.

Postpone elections? Derailing the vote, even temporarily, could be deeply disillusioning; even worse would be an election that proceeds and yields a tainted result. The Muslim Brothers, the only stable and organized faction in Egyptian politics, are poised to win the election and enhance their legitimacy. If polling is delayed or canceled, their anger and frustration with the army will worsen. Egyptian friends said if the voting happens, shops will close, and they expect to keep their family indoors. The ballots apparently have not yet been printed.

I wish I saw progress growing out of Egypt’s soul-searching, but it seems like an awful no-win moment. And I can’t stop thinking about the young man bleeding to death.

Editor's Note:  Jim Compton spent three years based in Cairo as the NBC News Mideast Correspondent.


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