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On the future of this blog

Dear All -

It’s come to my attention that some people have this blog on their RSS feeds or Google readers, but do not follow me via other social media. I just wanted to let you know that for now I am posting almost exclusively at +972 Magazine, which I am proud of; it has become quite successful, with frequent mentions in the New York Times and other prestigious media outlets.

There are some older posts over at +972, not cross-posted here, that you might be interested in reading in case you’d like to catch up on the last few months, but I have not written very much since leaving Egypt at the end of April. Instead of returning to Israel, I came to Toronto. At the time, my mother was very ill – in the last stage of cancer – so I came to be with her and to help my sister care for her.

My mother, Judith Gwendolyn Goldman (nee Brail) died on 12 July 2011. My sister Adina’s eulogy for our mother is here.

I was exhausted from the intense events in Israel over the previous year, plus Cairo – which was fascinating but completely depleting – and then being with my mother as she lived her final two months, in a lot of pain and grief. So I have decided to stay in Toronto – for the medium term at least –  rather than return to Israel.

As for this blog, I am not sure what my plans are. But I will update you when I decide.

Soldiers planted flowers in Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square has been cleaned up. One day last week soldiers laid new turf in the central traffic island, and the next day they planted flowers. A day after that they erected a huge banner that confirmed the army’s commitment to the goal of the revolution, but when I returned two days later with my camera, the banner had already been removed. Instead, I saw young girls photographing each other as they posed in front of the flowers, seemingly oblivious to the roaring traffic as they enjoyed a bit of green in a city that has so little of it.

Traffic island in the middle of Tahrir Square, newly planted with fresh turf and flowers

Even the revolutionary merchandisers are mostly gone. Once it was nearly impossible to walk without stepping on their wares, spread out over the busy sidewalks around Tahrir Square; now there are just a couple left.

Selling revolutionary merchandise at Tahrir Square

During the same week that the army re-landscaped Tahrir Square, a friend and I attended a performance of jazz songs at The Culture Wheel. During intermission, my friend remarked that the auditorium was more than half full for a minor culture event; she speculated that people were letting go of the revolutionary adrenalin and learning to take pleasure in more prosaic events, and that this was a healthy sign.

The revolution does not feel over or stalled. It does feel as though it has entered a new phase – perhaps a more mature one. The interim government seems to be responding to some of the activists’ calls – by detaining and/or investigating Mubarak’s sons and cronies for corruption and profiteering. Some of the detained activists have been released. Onerous restrictions that made registering a newspaper nearly impossible under Mubarak were recently lifted. The courts ordered the NDP, Mubarak’s party, to be dismantled; the party’s power structure remains, but that could be a temporary matter. Or not.

On the other hand, the Emergency Laws are still in place and Amnesty International just released a report that describes a continued pattern of “torture, arbitrary detention, trials of civilians before military courts and repression of freedom of expression by authorities.” Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen sums up post-Mubarak Egypt thus: “The uniforms have changed but we’ve seen the same patterns of abuse continue.”

So are we seeing a consolidation of military rule or a bumpy transition to a democratic state – which will no doubt be as imperfect as most democracies? After five weeks of talking to academics, analysts, politicians and journalists, there is only one answer: No-one knows.

Elections are supposed to be held in September. Ramadan begins in mid-August, with a month of daytime fasting and late-night celebrating at the height of summer. Between now and mid-September, the many political parties that have begun to gather supporters and stake out their positions will have to register and campaign. Today, on Easter Monday / Sham el-Nissim (holiday of the spring), with the city quiet and most people out enjoying the day off, it feels as though everyone is taking a deep breath and gathering energy for the next phase of the revolution.

Removing the Mubarak name from public places

Egypt is gradually entering the post-Mubarak era. Yesterday I photographed this route map on a Cairo subway: the name of Mubarak Station had been scratched out, and someone had scrawled over it the word “martyrs” in green ink.

A Cairo metro route map, with the station named "Mubarak" scratched out

Since the January 25 revolution, this type of defacement has been a common site in Cairo public places that were named for the deposed president and his family. Now it will be official: A Cairo court ruled today that the name of Hosni Mubarak and his wife, Suzanne, must be removed from all public places.

By the way, I took the photo of the subway route map while riding in a carriage reserved for women only. In general, sexual harassment in Egypt is annoying and a bit oppressive, but not nearly as bad as I had expected – and certainly no worse than the harassment I experienced while traveling in India, where I used to travel in the “ladies’ compartment” during long inter-urban train journeys.

It’s remarkably relaxing to travel in a women-only compartment.

Cairo metro carriage reserved for women only

If you enjoyed this article and would like to make a payment toward reader-sustained freelance journalism, please click on the ‘donate’ button below.


This article is cross-posted from +972 Magazine.

Revolution’s benefits passed over Egypt’s factory workers

Forty percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line and many of them are factory workers like the ones in Shebin, a town two hours north of Cairo. Despite having played an active role in the events leading up to the deposing of Hosni Mubarak, they are still working full time for a wage that does not allow them “bread, dignity and freedom.” It might be a long time before they feel the benefits of the revolution; and meantime, they could be the ones who suffer the most from Egypt’s economic difficulties.

SHEBIN, Egypt – The town of Shebin el Kom is about two hours’ drive north of Cairo, in the Menoufiya Governate of the Nile Delta Valley. It has two notable institutions – a university, which was founded in 1976; and a textile factory, which was established in 1962. The factory’s 3,200 workers went on strike from March 6, joining workers in industrial areas across the country to demand a minimum wage and improvements in basic conditions like workplace safety, payment of overdue bonuses and severance pay for laid-off workers. We had heard that conditions were not good, and that there had been some violent confrontations with the army. The story seemed worth investigating, so we (a European journalist and I) drove out on the morning of April 6.

A street in Shebin

Factory workers played an important role in the January 25 revolution. They participated first as individuals, and later as organized groups. Workers from industrial towns like Mahalla started striking and organizing workers’ collectives several years ago. The April 6 Youth Movement, which was a primary organizer of the revolution, took its name from a Mahallah factory workers’ strike that was called on April 6, 2008 and then violently repressed by security forces. The  April 6 Youth supported the workers’ right to strike under the rubric of freedom of speech and democratic values. But now that they had succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak, would the lives of the factory workers, who had been struggling for so long, change for the better?

Shebin turned out to be a dusty, noisy, shambling town that looked quite similar to a generic working class area of Cairo. Needing a coffee after a two-hour drive, we stopped at one of the traditional outdoor cafes on a main street, where men sat around low tables chatting or reading newspapers as they drank tea or Turkish coffee and smoked shisha. A few heads lifted as the two foreigners sat down, of course, but the reaction to our presence was pretty muted. We sat, ordered our coffees, and watched as cars and strolling university students passed back and forth.

At the next table, a middle-aged man wearing a nylon tracksuit and a baseball cap grinned at us, stretching his white, bushy, nicotine-stained mustache. He leaned over and welcomed us expansively, making it clear that we were on his turf, and proceeded to interrogate us, via our translator, in a genial but methodical manner. Where were we from and what were we doing in Shebin? Ah, journalists. And what newspapers did we work for? Yes, yes, he knew where the factory was. His brother was in charge of its security. Wait, drink your coffee, I’ll call him and have him come over to escort you.

Thirty minutes later, the brother was still “on his way,” and we were impatient. Just point us in the direction of the factory, we told the man with the bushy mustache. We don’t need anyone to accompany us. He was a bit put out, but insisted on paying for our coffees and directing us to the factory, which turned out to be about three minutes’ drive away – down the main road and to the right, at the end of a pleasant, tree-shaded residential street that was lined with low-rise apartment buildings.

The factory was huge and ugly, but the grounds were surprisingly well kept and clean. The place was also very quiet. There were no demonstrators and no soldiers; just a few workers milling around inside the fence, or sprawled on the grass. When they saw two foreigners approaching the gate, they sprang up and gestured for us to enter the factory grounds. We had the feeling they were expecting us.

Shebin textile factory

A group gathered around us to air their grievances. They had a tendency to speak all at once and to shout, so it took awhile to sort out the background and the main issues. As is usually the case with factory strikes, the workers wanted higher wages, payment of long-withheld bonuses and, in the case of Shebin, re-instatement of workers who had been laid off without cause.
Once state-owned, the Shebin textile factory was privatized in 2007, when it was sold to some foreign investors that the workers referred to as “Indians.” (Later, we discovered that they were referring to an Indonesian multinational group called Indorama, which serves huge companies like Nike and Adidas.) With privatization came a series of blows: most of the workers became private sector employees, rather than government employees; they lost most of their social benefits and subsidies; and their wages and bonuses were slashed or frozen. The new, Indonesian management introduced cost-cutting measures, laying off workers without cause and forcing those who kept their jobs to do the work of three or four people. Turning to the ministry of labor was a waste of time, they said; the bureaucrats had been bribed to disregard the workers’ complaints.

One man, well-groomed and wearing metal-framed glasses that lent him an air of authority, pushed his way to the front of the crowd. This was Yasser, the factory’s manager of imports and a graduate of Ain Shams University. Yasser knew some English, so he spoke to us directly rather than through the translator. He said he was 37 years old and had worked at the factory for 14 years. Smiling serenely, Yasser explained that everything was fine now. The workers had hammered out a great deal with the government, all their demands had been met, they would all be paid two months’ salary to cover the period they had been on strike, and they would go back to work the following day. Everything was much better because of the revolution, which they had all supported. Now, they had the right to strike and their grievances were addressed. Before, the security forces would have prevented them from demonstrating outside the factory grounds and their grievances would have been ignored.

Just then, the brother of the mustached guy from the café – the man responsible for factory security – showed up. He wore a white tie with black pin-striped suit jacket and smelled faintly of aftershave. Smiling without warmth behind opaque sunglasses, he shook hands with us and stood close to Yasser.

Yasser (right) and the security officer (in sunglasses & tie)

“May we look inside one of the factory floors?” we asked. Sure, they answered. We’ll show you around. Come.”

Inside the factory grounds

The huge, fluorescent-lit space was filled with machinery and rows of fabric. We were told much more than we ever wanted to know about how to make synthetic fabric, and about the provenance of the machines. There was a space on the floor for prayer, with rugs and a wobbly cardboard mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca. The men who had been gathered around Yasser, the satisfied imports manager, bounded around the factory floor, chattering away in Arabic and gesturing for me to photograph the machines.

Textiles manufactured at the Shebin factory

Place to pray on the factory floor

After awhile, I took the translator aside and asked a few of the more reticent workers about conditions on the factory floor. It turned out that they were pretty bad. There was no ventilation, no air conditioning and no safety equipment. The bathrooms were filthy. People lost fingers to the manufacturing machines, they developed lung diseases from the synthetic fabric fibers, and they lost their hearing due to the noisy machines. There were no protective gloves, earplugs or face masks. The factory physician, they said, did not examine them properly when they developed work-related illnesses. They said he just prescribed superficial treatments for their symptoms and recorded that they could soon return to work. The factory owners, said the workers, bribed inspectors from the ministry of labor to ignore the safety violations. Had any of these issues been resolved with the new agreement? No, they answered.

Outside, while my European colleague, who speaks some Arabic, continued to chat with Yasser and a few others, the translator and I went looking for workers who might be less satisfied with the agreement.

Within about two minutes we came across a group of exhausted-looking men. They were dressed in worn galabiyas and cheap rubber sandals, and they pushed battered bicycles as they walked, slowly. “Are you satisfied with the agreement?” I asked. “No,” they answered. “But there is nothing we can do. We are not government employees anymore.” It turned out that these workers had been privatized when the factory was purchased by Indorama in 2007. Since labor laws regarding severance and benefits are not really enforced in Egypt, they did not have the same benefits and leverage as Yasser, the satisfied imports manager, who was still a state employee.

Exhausted and earning a wage that puts them at poverty level

One of the men told me that he was 54 years old and had worked at the factory for 40 years. He said that he worked seven days a week, and the other workers said they all worked every day. There was no day of rest. The man I spoke to had six children, and his take-home strike pay would be LE 900 (USD 150) for two months. “Is that enough to feed your family?” I asked. “No,” chorused the men; they all had large callouses on their foreheads, indicating that they prayed frequently and with fervor. “And how will you live?” I persisted. They rolled their eyes upward and said, “Ya rab.” God will help.

Just as they launched into a long list of grievances about the way management treated them, the security officer walked up, placed his hand on the arm of the worker I was interviewing, and suggested to the translator that we should continue our conversation outside the factory grounds.

Factory security officer suggests we take our conversation outside

Over at the local branch of the syndicate, the governmental workers’ representatives, a reception committee was waiting for us again. Apparently, word about the visiting foreign journalists spread fast in Shebin. A group of men sat in an expectant row in a shabby but well-kept office that seemed to be little used. They tried to look nonchalant but busy; one man lifted the receiver of the phone, peered at the dial pad, punched a few keys, listened for a second without comment and then replaced the receiver. There were no filing cabinets and only a calendar for a wall decorations. The desk surfaces were clean. Tea and biscuits were served, and we received the same cadre-like speech. The agreement was excellent, the workers’ demands had been met, everyone was happy. The spokesman insisted on reading the entire agreement – which he just happened to have on hand. He even asked me to photograph it, page by page.

At the workers' syndicate

The agreement, signed and sealed

Difficult questions were stonewalled, but we did manage to confirm that a complex bonus system made it impossible for workers to avoid working on Fridays. They were not forced to work every day, but their base salary, which hovered around LE 300, was not a living wage. Friday bonuses made up the essential difference, and a few government subsidies picked up some of the slack. “And we break every day for prayers,” emphasized the spokesman, as we chewed on our sweet biscuits and sipped our tea.

I had a lot of time to think about the factory workers of Shebin during the long, long traffic jam that eventually ended and spat us back into Cairo. Factory workers were not alone in earning LE 500 or less per month. Teachers and traffic cops made about the same, but teachers made most of their income via after-school tutorial schools, which are essential for public school pupils who wish to graduate; and traffic cops took bribes. By way of contrast, our translator was paid LE 1,000 for a day’s work with us. Factory workers living in an isolated industrial town had no marketable skills, and almost no possibility of earning extra income. They could look forward only to a lifetime of waking up each morning, working at the factory and taking home a monthly salary that put them at the poverty line.

An acquaintance that works for an NGO, which processes refugees from Eritrea, said that the monthly stipend for a family of four refugees was LE 1,100 (USD 184) – and that it was not quite enough for them to manage on. Another acquaintance, a diplomat and an expert in trade and economic matters, told me that there was absolutely no chance of the workers’ demand for a minimum wage of LE 1,200 per month being met. The government would go bankrupt, and foreign investment would dry up. This would exacerbate Egypt’s already grave economic difficulties. It was impossible. And if the factory workers did not go back to work, the economy would spiral even further downward.

Two nights ago, I celebrated the story of the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. It is a story of escape from slavery, and it was told at a seder in one of Cairo’s last synagogues. For the first time in my life, I heard a seder leader, the person who reads the story of the Exodus from the Haggadah, tell us that we had once been slaves “here” (in Egypt), and not “there.” I thought about those factory workers again as I chewed on my first piece of matza, the Jews’ equivalent of Proust’s madeleine, and realized, not for the first time, that there were still some people who lived in a sort of slavery, way down in Egypt-land – even though the pharaoh had been deposed and exiled to Sharm el Sheikh.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to make a payment toward reader-sustained freelance journalism, please click on the ‘donate’ button below.


This article is cross-posted from +972 Magazine.

Egypt’s revolution: Lots of toil ahead & maybe some tears

Roadside billboard in Cairo: 'We all love Egypt' (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Yasmin, an attorney and democracy activist, said that this past Friday’s demonstration at Tahrir Square was the biggest she’d seen since Mubarak resigned. “This is the old spirit of the revolution,” she said, as Ramy Essam, a musician who composed and performed a now-famous song at Tahrir during the revolution, played the guitar and sang from the stage. That was his first performance since he was arrested, and badly beaten by soldiers three weeks earlier. At one point, he removed his shirt to show the audience the still visible bruises and scars on his torso.

There were thousands of people in Tahir, far more than the previous Friday, and it seemed as though they all cheered and waved flags when the mother of Khaled Said, whose violent death at the hands of police thugs was a watershed event leading up to the revolution, was introduced from the stage. A small, veiled woman dressed in black, she spoke forcefully of the need to continue the revolution begun on January 25.

Listening to Khaled Said's mother speak at Tahrir Square, Friday 1 April (photo: Lisa Goldman)

After Khaled Said’s mother finished speaking, a man took the microphone and intoned a prayer for the martyrs of the revolution.

There were also calls for the resignation of Field Marshall Tantawi, the head of the military council that currently rules Egypt.

The theme of Friday’s demonstration was taking back the revolution, which seems to have stalled over the past couple of weeks. Democracy activists are frustrated by the army, which has been slow to implement reforms – such as lifting the emergency laws and prosecuting corrupt officials of the Mubarak regime. The military council is starting to respond to demands to fire university deans and newspaper editors that were appointed by Mubarak, but only after weeks of strikes and demonstrations. In an editorial for independent newspaper Daily News Egypt, Rania al Malky lists 26 questions Egyptians are asking – like why aren’t Mubarak and his family on trial, and why is the emergency law still in place.

The army is acting in an increasingly repressive manner. A few days ago, soldiers arrested a 22 year-old blogger, Michael Nabil, at his home. He was targeted for publishing reports about the army’s violence toward protestors. Nabil is charged with insulting the military, spreading false information, and disturbing public security. He is a Copt and a pacifist who refused the draft, which probably does not help his case.

My impression is that, beyond the core group of democracy activists one sees at pretty much every demonstration, a lot of the protestors one saw during the revolution are simply tired. Last week one acquaintance said that she and all her friends had planned to go to Tahrir for the Friday demo, but in the end no-one showed up. “We have lives to live,” she said.

This past Friday at Tahrir, it felt as though the core activists were working very hard to muster their waning energy. They spoke enthusiastically, but sometimes I felt as though they were running on empty, or on a combination of hope and – well, hope. Yasmin now spends all her time outside work in activism, primarily under the auspices of a movement called Almasry Alhurr (The Free Egyptians). She says she was not political before the revolution, but the demonstrations that started on January 25 galvanized her, and she’s been working non-stop ever since. Are you optimistic? I asked, after she had spent a few minutes describing the army’s recent repressive actions as a ‘counter revolution.’ She answered, “We have to be optimistic. Otherwise we will lose all we’ve gained.”

Banners strung from trees and lampposts called for the cancellation of a recently introduced ban on political demonstrations during working hours, for the return of wealth plundered by Mubarak and corrupt members of his regime and for the speedy prosecution of those responsible for killing demonstrators during the revolution. There was a sort of Speaker’s Corner atmosphere, with clusters of people engaged in animated political discussions about a variety of issues. Democracy activists were engaged in the grassroots work of starting new political parties, passing out information that explained their party platforms, listed the names and bios of the candidates and the dates of their upcoming talks.

Woman at Tahrir dressed in colours of Egyptian flag (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Parliamentary elections are to be held in September, which allows very little time for organizing – and the activists know it. “We need at least six months to organize properly,” said Rania, an organizer for the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which advocates a Scandinavian model of government that combines an open market with the state taking responsibility for health, education and labour unions. She said they had signed up 6,000 members in just a couple of weeks, and expected to sign up a thousand more that Friday in Tahrir. “But there’s no way we can compete with the established parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party, so we are looking for alliances with other leftist groups,” she added.

It’s widely believed that the army wants early elections precisely because in order to prevent new political parties from organizing and posing a significant challenge to the status quo. Like many others in the democracy movement, Yasmin, the attorney who is active in Almasry Alhurr, finds herself in the uncomfortable position of having to trust an institution she does not trust on principle – the army – to keep its word and shepherd Egypt toward transparent elections leading to a liberal democratic state. There is no real choice at the moment.”If the army chooses to repress this revolution violently,” she remarked, “There would be absolutely nothing we could do to stop them.”

But the activists who criticize the army tell me over and over that they are a small minority. They know they are not representative, and they know they are out of touch with Egyptians that live in the villages and towns outside of Cairo. Most people, they say, regard the army as a stabilizing, protective force that looks out for the best interests of the people.

A friend who accompanied me to Tahrir complained about the commercialization of the revolution and the carnival atmosphere, with snack stands and memorabilia – January 25 T-shirts, bumper stickers, flags and laminated photos of martyrs to the revolution strung from lanyards. He was particularly angry about a sign on a snack van sponsored by Chipsy, a local potato chip manufacturer: Buy five bags of Chipsy brand potato chips, read the sign, and receive the sixth bag free – for the revolution.

The combination of carnival atmosphere and serious political action reminded me of the demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood where demonstrators gather each Friday to protest the eviction of Palestinians from their homes, which have been taken over by Jewish settlers. Over the past year, the weekly demonstrations, which began in December 2009 with violent confrontations between anarchists and riot police, have settled into a more sedate routine, with the anarchists joined by middle class leftists, often in family groups. Meanwhile, East Jerusalem Palestinian kids sell coffee, orange juice and popcorn to the demonstrators from snacks and buying souvenirs of the revolution. Many of the children stopped to have the red, black and white stripes of the Egyptian flag painted on their cheeks.

Over the past few days, several Egyptian activists asked my opinion about their revolution. They asked not because they had an opinion and wanted to see if I shared it, but because – and they say this openly – they don’t know what to think anymore. The people who asked me included a Coptic man who works for a multi-national company; a Muslim woman who works in hi-tech and veils ‘because wearing [the hijab] doesn’t bother me and taking it off just isn’t worth the trouble it’ll cause with my family’; and a leftist activist who hangs out with anarchists but says he’s a socialist. The question usually comes up after we’ve batted around a few theories about the army’s intentions and the direction the revolution is taking, and whether or how long it will take to achieve a liberal democracy. After a few rounds of ‘on the one hand, but on the other hand,’ they’ll catch themselves, smile at me, and ask, “So what do you think will happen?”

One friend started out by saying that perhaps this was as far as the army would let the revolution would go – allowing demonstrations at Tahrir, a bit more press freedom, dismissal of some Mubarak appointees in the media and academia, and prosecution of the more egregiously corrupt Mubarak regime officials. A few minutes later, that same friend introduced me to democracy activists who are pouring every bit of energy they have into organizing political parties and grassroots activism.

Walking around Tahrir on Friday and talking to people, my mood and opinions swung back and forth. Like my Egyptian acquaintances, I felt discombobulated at having no reliable gut sense of where this revolution was heading. One minute I was convinced the army intended to consolidate its grip on power via a Mubarak ‘lite’ style of government; and the next minute I would have a fascinating conversation with a brilliant, committed democracy activist who had a clear, pragmatic vision of Egypt’s future. One day I was totally depressed at having yet another acquaintance cancel our meeting out of fear of being associated with me (a foreigner of a particularly undesirable type); and the next day I was sitting at an ‘ahwa,’ a traditional café in the borsa district, surrounded by intelligent, well-informed activists – including an Egyptian anarchist who asked me to send his regards to an Israeli anarchist he knew.

Borsa cafes at night (photo: Lisa Goldman)

On Friday evening, after a long conversation with a group of people at one of those ahwas, a friend remarked that I was probably starting to feel as though I were finally gaining some insight and understanding into what I was seeing. That was a smart observation. One of the things I learned from reporting in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is that it’s very risky to write an article based purely on having witnessed an incident. If you don’t know who the main players are, you don’t speak the language and you have only just arrived in a place, chances are very high that you don’t understand what you’re seeing. That is why I have been so cautious in my initial reports from Cairo. And that is why I have decided to extend my stay a bit. I need to get out of Cairo to visit the Delta region as well as other cities. And several stories that I have been working on for more than a week are just now starting to come together.

Meanwhile, I have almost finished another post – a bit more lighthearted than this one. It is a story about my meting with Heba, the hijab-wearing Egyptian Hebrew teacher. Really.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to make a payment toward reader-sustained freelance journalism, please click on the ‘donate’ button below.


Israel must change its approach, says Egyptian journalist

“The whole region is changing except for Israel,” said Egyptian journalist Ahmed Naje. “In three or four years, Egypt will have a democratically elected civilian government, but Israel will still have a government dominated by former army officers. The gap in mentalities will widen, and it will become very difficult to bridge. Israel must change its approach to the peace process.”

Ahmed Naje (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Ahmed, often called ‘Nagy,’* covers culture and literature for the daily newspaper Al Akhbar. The reporters are on strike to demand the editor in chief’s resignation, which is why he was able to spare me several hours for a conversation at a café in the borsa, the stock market area of downtown Cairo. It’s a picturesque street lined with outdoor cafes, popular with students and democracy activists.

Cafes in the borsa, Cairo's stock exchange area (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Nagy was one of the first people to welcome me back to the city, and so far he is the only Egyptian journalist who readily agreed to be interviewed for +972 Magazine. “I know who you are and I read +972 Magazine,” he said. “I don’t care that the contributors are mostly Israeli. What matters to me is what you write and what your opinions are.”

Agreeing to speak on the record for an Israel-based website, no matter what its politics, is a brave position to take in Egypt. The issue of normalization is hugely controversial, and is often cynically used to create media storms or carry out vendettas. The Journalists Union’s ban on normalization is not the main issue – as far as I have understood, the union does not have much power – but the social and political taboos are strong. There are plenty of people who will say off the record that they think slapping the ‘normalization’ label on every contact between Egyptian journalists and Israelis is ridiculous and hypocritical, but it’s a populist issue that isn’t going away.

Over the past two years, two prominent Egyptian journalists – Hala Mustafa of Al Ahram and Hussein Serag of October Magazine – were hit by a storm of controversy when their contacts with Israelis were made public. Under Mubarak’s regime, contact with Israelis could also arouse the undesirable interest of the dreaded Amn al-Dawla, the Internal State Security Service. Nagy’s unlikely to become the target of a media storm and the SSI has been dissolved, but there is still the issue of professional and social opprobrium. Nagy said he does not fear either one. When I repeated this to a few mutual friends, they smiled fondly and said, “Yeah, Nagy’s great.”

So we talked about the main groups involved in the revolution leading up to Mubarak’s resignation, the future of Egypt’s economy, the role and goals of the Muslim Brotherhood in a future Egyptian government – and the future of Egypt’s relationship with Israel.

It’s already a cliche to describe the situation in post-Mubarak Egypt as ‘uncertain’ and ‘confusing.’ The revolution is a work in progress; many people have told me it will take several years to rebuild the country’s economy and institutions. University students are striking for the removal of Mubarak-appointed academics, workers are striking for minimum wage and improved conditions; there are demands to reform the ministry of communications and the ministry of security, and there are demonstrations in the Tahrir area several times per week. Daily life continues, but there is a sense that the army, about which many people are quite ambivalent, is the only thing preventing a state of chaos.

Nagy is pragmatically optimistic. He acknowledges the challenges and obstacles Egypt faces in transitioning to democracy, but he sees them as bumps on the road leading inexorably to a democratic Egypt with a civilian government elected by the people. “It will take five or six years for the real revolution to be achieved,” he says. “When the 15 and 16 year olds of today are mature adults who were raised on democratic values, without the mentality of needing a ‘father figure’ like Mubarak – that’s when the real change will happen.” He is certain that Egypt – and the entire Arab Middle East – is in a process of unstoppable historical change. We are going through a period of reorganization, he says, and Egypt will soon retake its position as regional leader.

Revolutionary graffiti outside Houria Bar, near Tahrir Square (photo: Lisa Goldman)

“Obviously we want the Palestinians to have their civil rights and their own state,” said Nagy, “But no-one is willing to spill Egyptian blood to achieve this goal.”

Only one Egyptian politician has called for abrogating the peace treaty with Israel, he pointed out. Hamdeen Sabahy, of the left-leaning Al Karama (Dignity) party, made a statement to that effect during a radio interview show. According to Nagy, three or four people immediately called in to challenge Sabahy, asking irately what he meant by ‘cancel.’ The terms of the peace treaty are unpopular, but a popularly elected government can renegotiate them. “We just had a referendum in this country and the results show that people want stability,” said Nagy. “War is the opposite of stability. No-one wants it.”

No-one in the political leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has called for canceling the peace treaty, either. Nagy’s a secular liberal, but he does not fear the Muslim Brotherhood. “There are a lot of misconceptions about them,” he said. “For example, it’s not true that their target constituents are the poor and disadvantaged, or that the Brotherhood has a non-democratic agenda. And it’s not true that their membership is drawn from the poorer classes, either. If you look at their membership list, you won’t find a single one who did not finish high school.”

The Egyptian narrative of the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel, and of the war of attrition that came between the two, mirror the Israeli narrative of suffering and loss. It seems as though nearly every Egyptian has an uncle or a father who served, died or was taken prisoner in one of those wars. Just as Israelis in their forties who grew up in the border regions remember childhoods spent in bomb shelters, so do Egyptians who grew up in Suez remember the many civilians who were killed by the Israeli army. Issander El Amrani, a well-known Middle East expert who blogs at The Arabist, told me that the 1967 war pretty much bankrupted Egypt. No wonder, then, that war with Israel is the last thing anyone wants.

But, warns Nagy, Israel will become a popular rallying issue for Egyptian politicians. “Israel will become part of the political game,” he said, if it continues its military occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza. Palestine is an emotional issue for Egyptians, as it is for most Arabs.

There is also a lot of popular resentment toward the natural gas deal, whereby Egypt sells one of its most valuable natural resources to Israel at a price that is well below market value. Egyptian journalists who try to investigate the terms of the deal, which were negotiated with no transparency at all, have been rewarded with the unwelcome attention of the ISS. It is widely believed that most of the revenue from the gas deal went straight into Gamal Mubarak’s bank account, to the detriment of Egypt’s largely impoverished population. Last year, there were reports – denied by EGAS – of Egypt having to re-import its own natural gas from Israel due to an electricity shortfall.

Nagy is certain that the culture of corruption and cronyism will change. Egypt, he said, will become a transparent market economy, “Because that is what the middle class wants.” He explained, “Don’t forget that January 25 was a middle class revolution. The Egyptian middle class numbers 20 million. That is huge. They want a globalized, transparent market economy and they will get it.”

“Do you see Israel as a threat?” I asked him. Nagy laughed in surprise. “Who in the world does not worry about Israel?” he asked. “Can you show me one week when Israeli soldiers did not kill civilians? What would make any Egyptian feel positive about Israel? What positive thing has Israel ever done for Egypt? Even the peace treaty was initiated by Sadat, by the Egyptian side. Not by Israel.”
Yesterday, a friend sent me this poll, which asks Egyptians about the issues they want an elected leader to focus on. The top three issues are getting rid of corruption (73%), reforming the education system (53%) and reducing unemployment (60%). Ending the peace treaty with Israel is the least important issue, with only 23 percent of respondents citing it as an important issue.

During the Egyptian revolution, a lot of Israeli Middle East analysts – mostly men in their 60s – lined up in front of the television cameras to predict that the overthrow of Mubarak would take Israel back to the bad old days, before the peace treaty, when the border with Egypt was a dangerous place and the threat of war was always present. No-one explained why Egypt would want to go to war with Israel, or why Egyptians wanted to overthrow Mubarak. As Mohamed said to me, “This revolution was not about Israel, you know. B’emet.”

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In post-revolutionary Cairo, patriotism is newly fashionable

CAIRO — After a long and frustrating day of epic Cairo traffic jams and appointments that were either canceled at the last minute or ignored altogether, a group of us, trying to salvage the day with a good meal, drove out to a casual-but-famous restaurant in old Cairo that specialized in local meat dishes. And then the key got stuck in the ignition. After a few minutes of increasingly frustrated tugging and a phone call to the auto service company, which informed us that the tow truck was in Alexandria until the following day, my friend sighed and dialed his family mechanic.

Said-the-mechanic arrived about 30 minutes later. With his clean, well-groomed hands, jeans and untucked blue-checked shirt, he looked like a suburban dad with an office job rather than a mechanic. He sat beside me in the driver’s seat and went to work, delicately taking apart the steering wheel as he chatted softly to my friend in Arabic. After awhile, as he groped under the dashboard for some wires, he turned to me, smiled shyly, and said, “I speak English, but I don’t have many opportunities to use it. I have a degree in commerce from Ain Shams University.”

Later, my friend explained how Said, the English-speaking university graduate who dressed as if he did his clothes shopping at a suburban American shopping mall, came to be a mechanic – which was clearly not what he wanted to do with his life.

Said’s father was my friend’s father’s family mechanic. After Said graduated from university, his father called my friend’s father, an academic who was then working as a consultant for a government ministry, and asked for his help in finding his son a job. According to an Egyptian law enacted in 1964, every university graduate is entitled to a job in the civil service. But with the population explosion, the waiting list for those jobs was about 15 years – which was why my friend’s father’s connections were so important.

But besides the long wait for a white-collar government job, there is another problem: the salary is a joke. My friend’s father could quite easily find a civil service job for his mechanic’s son, but he had no control over the salary – which was set by the government at 140 Egyptian pounds per month. At today’s exchange rate, 140 Egyptian pounds is about $23 (USD). Earlier that day, at the Zamalek branch of a casual international chain of cafes, a friend and I paid 160 Egyptian pounds for three cappuccinos, a soggy sandwich and a small, mediocre tuna salad. We spent 20 pounds more than a civil servant’s monthly salary on a forgettable lunch for two.

So Said went to work for his father. Later, he expanded the business by opening up an auto parts dealership next to the mechanic shop. He makes a good income and he has made sure that his children receive a good education (“they all speak English”), but he is a mechanic in a class-bound society. His clients, the members of Egypt’s shrunken and frayed middle class, might earn less money than he, but they have professional degrees or doctorates and academic positions. They publish research papers, are invited to speak at international conferences and get paid for consulting work. They command a respect that Said’s father wanted for him, and that Said wants for his children.

And that story illustrates one of several main factors that fed the discontent leading up to the January 25 revolution. The majority of Egypt’s population is under 30, and they cannot get ahead, even when they play by the rules – by attending university, graduating at the top of their class and serving a mandatory year in the army. Then they try to enter the job market, and there is either no work, or the work available does not pay a living wage. Hence the humiliation and discontent.

Egyptians keep telling me that their country was rotten before the revolution. That the social fabric was unraveling due to the fear, corruption and hopelessness. “Now people are taking ownership of their country,” said my friend Inji. “You can feel the difference.” I told another friend that I’d seen a woman in a wealthy area of downtown, pushing a baby in an expensive Bugaboo pram; she wore interlocking Chanel ‘C’ earrings, high-heeled boots, a Gucci scarf covering her hair and a T-shirt emblazoned with an Egyptian flag and the slogan “January 25.” My friend laughed and remarked that no-one would wear an Egyptian flag T-shirt before the revolution. “Except maybe as an expression of irony.”

In post-Mubarak Egypt, patriotism is fashionable. Cars sport bumper stickers that look like vanity plates, with January 25 replacing license plate numbers. Street vendors darting between cars idling in traffic jams sell little Egyptian flags and tissue packaged in boxes emblazoned with the Egyptian flag, or packages of cards with the photos of people who were killed in the revolution. The gift shop in my friend’s hotel sells January 25 T-shirts and the flat screen television in the lobby is tuned to a local version of MTV that broadcasts songs with visuals consisting of photos of people who were killed during the revolution in a loop, superimposed against the now-iconic images of crowds of protesters facing down security forces near Tahrir Square.


A popular post-revolutionary bumper sticker (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Meanwhile, the results of Saturday’s referendum on a package of constitutional amendments were published yesterday (Monday). Both Al Ahram, the government-owned newspaper, and the popular independent (opposition) daily Al Masry Al Youm, led with the same headline:’77.2% said “yes” and 22% said ‘no.’” Eighteen million Egyptians voted. There were procedural problems, as Mohamed describes here, and there were some violent incidents involving thugs trying to beat up voters, but no widespread reports of irregularities like ballot stuffing. One person told me that extra ballots were printed and flown to remote southern towns when they ran out. In Mubarak’s days, a village peasant would probably have been turned away from the polling station. Now the government was printing extra ballots at the last minute and flying them down, to make sure that no-one was prevented from voting.

All over Cairo, at outdoor cafes in downtown alleys, where men sit on plastic chairs drinking tea from smudged glasses and smoking shisha; and at overpriced espresso bars in the upscale neighbourhoods like Zamalek and Dokki, one hears people engaged in animated political discussions. This, my Egyptian friends tell me often, is very new. During Mubarak’s time, no-one was interested in talking about politics. Why would they bother, when the results of presidential elections were pre-ordained by fraud and violence?


Front page of Al Masry Al Youm (photo: Lisa Goldman)


Front page of Al Ahram (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Al Masry Al Youm was positive on the procedure, if not the results. “Egypt wins for both teams,” reads the sub under the headline. On the inside page, the first deputy of the Nasserist party, Sameh Ashour, is quoted as saying that some of the advertising going into the referendum employed religious themes and this must be rejected because religion has no place in politics. Ahmed Derragh of the National Coalition for Change describes the use of religious slogans to frighten Copts, who compose about 20 percent of the population, as ‘political opportunism.’

For the January 25 youth, the mainly Cairo-based, middle class activists who came to prominence as the organizers of the revolution, the referendum results were a disappointment. They are afraid that the army, which currently rules Egypt, will use a ‘yes’ vote to push too quickly for a presidential election, before there is time to field candidates and before Egyptians have enough time to examine and discuss the major issues, and that this will lead either to a consolidation of the army’s power or to an increase in the Muslim Brotherhood’s power.

Issander El Amrani explains the issues in this opinion piece for Time Magazine. The Sandmonkey, in this brilliant post, explains why the ‘no’ camp failed, why this is a small setback and not a catastrophe, and how the January 25 leadership can learn from these results as they go forward toward the goal of a democratic state.

As for me, I am chasing a bunch of stories simultaneously as I work on finding my way around. I’m trying to avoid the obvious, over-covered stories about the social media and the January 25 youth, although I’ll interview a couple of them, because I knew them before the revolution and following them during. Today I am looking at how the local art scene was affected by the revolution, and how the revolution brought feminist issues to the fore. I’m also following up on post-Mubarak academic and press freedom and whether or not the January 25 youth feel positive about the future. I’m going to talk to the poor – those that live from meal-to-meal. Do they see a reason to hope now? Why or why not? And, of course, I’ll be traveling out of Cairo – probably early next week. Is there a story that you are interested in? Let me know, preferably by email rather than in the comments section.

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At one Cairo polling station, voting ‘because it has meaning’

On 19 March Egyptians voted on a package of constitutional amendments. There was a sense of exuberance on the streets, with total strangers smiling and asking each other how they had voted – ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ For many, it was their first experience in participatory democracy; for others, it was the first time they bothered to vote in decades.

CAIRO — In an elementary school classroom decorated with colorful children’s drawings and guarded by two soldiers wearing camouflage and helmets, a gray-mustached Egyptian man wearing a galabiyeh and embroidered prayer cap voted for the first time in 30 years. “Because this time it means something,” he said, as he examined the pink indelible ink drying on his finger. Men and women queued up patiently – and separately – at that polling station in an elementary school in Dokki, an upscale residential area in downtown Cairo, as they waited their turn to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a package of constitutional amendments. Many emerged with exuberant smiles on their faces, waving their pink fingers to indicate they had voted and flashing the ‘V’ for Victory sign.

This man voted for the first time in 30 years, "Because this time it means something." (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Voting in an elementary school classroom (photo: Lisa Goldman)

'V' for Victory after voting. The woman on the right is wearing a headscarf in the colours of the Egyptian flag (photo: Lisa Goldman)

After Mohamed (known on Twitter as @travellerw) cast his ballot, he asked the young state prosecutor responsible for supervising the voting at that location if I could go in to take some photos and talk to people. When we stood in the schoolyard outside the classroom, where Mohamed also voted, a lot of people approached us to discuss their votes and their decisions. A few said they had read up on the issues via the referendum website.

Mohamed after voting (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Men lining up to vote in the referendum (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Out on the street, one man called out to Mohamed, ‘Did you vote “yes” or “no”?’ Mohamed answered, ‘I voted “no.”‘ The man gave him a thumbs-up of approval. Another man told Mohamed that he had voted “no,” “because they cannot fool us that easily.” Like many who voted “no,” the man seemed to be expressing a common feeling that the referendum was far too soon after the revolution, that people had not been given enough time to learn about the issues, which might mean that those who had drafted the amendments and those who supported them had ulterior motives.

One distinguished-looking man, a white-haired engineer wearing a suit jacket, said he had voted ‘yes’ based on only one of the proposed amendments – article 77, which would establish presidential terms of four years and limit office holders to to two terms, rather than the current unlimited terms of six years in office. Two owners of small businesses said they had voted ‘yes,’ even though they did not like many of the proposed amendments, because they wanted stability in Egypt. Change was too slow for them: one said he had not been able to pay his employees’ salaries for three months; and another said he simply was not making a living these days.

People argued animatedly, but courteously and with smiles. They were very engaged by the experience of participatory democracy. The news that the governor of Cairo was kicked out of a Cairo polling station because he insisted on going to the front of the queue instead of waiting his turn spread via Twitter and text messages, eliciting a lot of gleeful comments. There was no glee over the news that thugs attacked Mohamed ElBaradei at a polling station in a poor district of northern Cairo, throwing stones at the Nobel laureate and destroying his car.

Discussing how they'd voted (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Later, when we met up with Mohamed’s friend Inji, she announced anxiously that her cousin Ragia Omran, an attorney and well-known political activist, had just been arrested by the army, together with her younger sister, while they were observing the voting at another polling station. Dinner was punctuated with phone calls about Ragia from various friends and activists.

There is a lot of anxiety amongst the Cairo-based activists about the army – and with good reason: Over the past weeks they have played a duplicitous game, saying on the one hand that they would never shoot on pro-democracy protesters; and then, after Mubarak resigned, arresting, beating and brutally torturing many of them. According to one account, soldiers subjected detained female activists to virginity tests and threatened to charge non-virgins with prostitution.

On the other hand, someone has to run the country during the transition period leading up to elections. So there is an uneasy sense that while the army cannot be trusted, there is no choice but for them to remain in charge until elections are held.

As we walked to the car after dinner, we passed another school where the counting of votes had commenced. By the time we arrived home, just after midnight, the army had released Ragia Omran and her sister, unharmed.

Cross-posted from +972 Magazine.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to make a payment toward reader-sustained freelance journalism, please click on the ‘donate’ button below.


Update on crowd-funded journalism for Egypt reporting trip

Last week, I initiated an experiment in crowd-funded journalism with this blog post. In it, I described my first trip to Cairo in 2009, my feelings at watching the revolution from afar, and the obstacles that freelance journalists face in finding enough commissions to pay for journalism that involves traveling abroad. I ended by announcing a campaign to raise funds from readers, via PayPal donations, so that I could return to Egypt and report about the ongoing, post-Mubarak revolution for +972 Magazine.

The response was fantastic: Within two days, I had received more than $1,000, in amounts ranging from $3 to $100. Many people sent very touching notes to accompany their donations. Fellow journalists encouraged me in my quest to find a model for financing freelance journalism; a couple expressed an almost giddy enthusiasm at my taking the initiative, and finding an opportunity to write direct journalism about topics that interest me and my readers, rather than what editors think will interest their readers. People who had been reading my blog and articles for years wrote to tell me how much they enjoyed my writing and looked forward to my reports from Egypt. Others wrote that since my Facebook page and Twitter feed were their main sources of news, they were happy for the opportunity to make a donation.

I’d launched the experiment with a lot of trepidation, fearing it might fall flat, so the enthusiastic initial response was a tremendous boost.

Egyptian license plates (photo: Sarah Carr/Flickr)

My plan was to leave for Cairo sometime next week, but I realize now that I will need to leave by this coming Thursday – the day after tomorrow – in order to be there on time for the upcoming referendum on constitutional amendments (on Monday), and in order to be at Tahrir Square on the Friday before the referendum, which is this Friday. There is only one direct flight per week from Tel Aviv to Cairo, and it leaves on Thursdays.

So I broke down my expenses – flight, accommodation and meals, transportation and a paid translator – and went over them with an Egyptian journalist, an old friend who is based in Cairo. We agreed that I will need at least $4,000 to cover my basic expenses for a three-week trip to Egypt that involves traveling around the country and occasionally paying a translator to accompany me. Yes, so now you know why the financially beleaguered news media is no longer able to maintain dozens of foreign correspondents around the globe. It’s just too expensive! This is why nearly all the newspapers that used to have permanent correspondents based in Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Amman now have one correspondent for the whole region. Unless there is a major story, newspapers rely on a combination of local stringers (freelancers) that are paid per article rather than a monthly salary with benefits and wire services, like Reuters and AP. The result is that the wire services are really driving the news agenda these days, which means that a lot of less-obvious stories do not get covered.

My goal is to raise $3,500 by Wednesday night. This doesn’t leave much time, I know, but I am optimistic. I am embedding a donations meter, so that readers can watch as progress is made toward my goal. I have already raised $1,000 and need $3,500 more – for a total of $4,500 to pay for expenses and allow me a little safety net as well – in case my camera or laptop needs an emergency repair, for example, or in case I have a minor injury that requires paying for medical attention.

My goal is to raise $3,500 by Wednesday night. This doesn’t leave much time, I know, but I am optimistic. I am embedding a donations meter, below, so that readers can watch as progress is made toward my goal. I have already raised $1,000 and need $3,500 more – for a total of $4,500 to pay for expenses and allow me a little safety net as well – in case my camera or laptop needs an emergency repair, for example, or in case I have a minor injury that requires paying for medical attention.

To donate, just click on the words ChipIn! in the button embedded below. It will take you directly to PayPal; and once the transaction is approved, the meter will show the progress toward my goal.

How to send a writer to Egypt: my experiment in journalism 2.0

My first visit to Cairo, as described in this post, was a memorable experience. Not being there for the uprising that toppled Mubarak was a painful one. The revolution is ongoing, though, and it’s an amazing story that I would love to write about for +972 Magazine. But ours is a self-financed media shop, staffed by volunteer writers. So in order to pay for my expenses and my labor, I thought of an experimental method of financing independent, freelance journalism – by turning directly to readers. So first the story of my trip of my first trip to Cairo and then, at the end, details of how you can contribute to my returning for a reporting trip.

On the first day of my first visit to Cairo, which happened to be the day after President Obama gave his speech at the university, a friend rescued me from the fortress-like luxury hotel I’d been booked into by an eccentric potential employer and took me to see the things she loved about her city. It was a fabulous day that made a big impression. Ever since, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to return to Cairo for a longer stay – especially since the revolution, which has kept me glued to Twitter and Facebook practically all my waking hours for more than a month.

On that June day, we started my introduction to the city with a coffee and a long chat at the Alain le Notre Café overlooking the Citadel. My eyes kept wandering back to the romantic view of old Cairo, its haze- shrouded mosques and minarets, even as I kept up a running conversation with my companion. After coffee, we strolled along the paths that wound through the meticulously maintained green spaces of Azhar Park. Young couples sat on the grass under trees, discreetly holding hands until a tongue-clicking uniformed guard admonished them against public displays of affection. The scene reminded me of a talk given to a small group at Tel Aviv University by a junior diplomat from Egypt. He spoke passionately about the social crisis caused by delayed marriage in Egypt – about young couples that could neither afford to get married and set up a household, because of the high unemployment and low salaries; nor find a place to be alone in a conservative, crowded city that offered little privacy. The visceral understanding of that speech came when I saw the embarrassed expressions on the faces of those young couples that were just looking for a place to sit quietly and hold hands.

Alain le Notre Cafe (photo: Flickr/Sdhaddow)

Al Azhar Park (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Lunch was koshary at Abou Tarek’s – where I photographed the famous proprietor in the flesh, nonchalantly reading a magazine behind the cash register and oblivious to my camera. Like Hosni Mubarak, he looked considerably older in person than in his official photos.

Abou Tarek (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Abou Tarek's koshary (photo: Lisa Goldman)

After lunch, my friend showed me the new art gallery scene – edgy raw spaces in an industrial area crowded with auto repair shops. The gallery owners we met were like my friend – young and cosmopolitan, shifting easily between Arabic and English. In their dress-style and body language they were practically interchangeable with people their age – in their 20s and 30s – that you’d see hanging out at galleries and cafés in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district or Beirut’s Gemmayzeh. For all their sophistication and gloss, Paris, London and New York seemed tediously world-weary, pretentious and stagnant compared to the energetic creativity bubbling in the old-new cities of the Mediterranean region.

In the late afternoon we sat at the rooftop café of the Odeon Palace Hotel, with its faded old-world lobby and wood-paneled elevator. The waiter was a bit grumpy, but the view of the narrow downtown streets was very photogenic.

Street view from the roof of the Odeon Hotel (photo: Lisa Goldman)

At the Diwan Bookstore I pocketed a postcard advertising ashtanga yoga classes in Zamalek. Whenever I visit a city I like, my default is to imagine living there; and for me, a livable city must have a good yoga studio. 

A couple of days later, at a casual meet up with some local bloggers at Le Grillon, I responded enthusiastically to one woman’s polite question about my impressions of Cairo, adding that wished I could stay longer. “That’s because you can leave,” she answered, smiling bitterly.

A few minutes later, the journalist sitting to my right engaged me on the subject of contemporary Hebrew fiction. “I am not so crazy about Amos Oz,” he said, “But I like that younger guy – Keret.” Etgar Keret, 43, is best known for writing short, sometimes surrealistic stories in idiomatic Hebrew. Nael Elthoukhy, an Egyptian who studied Hebrew at Cairo’s Ain Shams University, had translated a few of Keret’s stories into Arabic and posted them on his blog, which was all about contemporary Hebrew literature. Already thinking about my own blog post – the one I never did write about that trip – I asked the journalist at Le Grillon if I could mention his name as the person who introduced me to Eltoukhy’s Arabic blog about Hebrew fiction. He thought for a moment and answered, “Better not.”

As we left the restaurant, someone pointed out a couple of men loitering on a corner, at the edge of Tahrir Square, and identified them as police spies. During the revolution, I learned that they were more commonly called thugs, and that everyone was afraid of them. A year after my Cairo visit, a couple of them beat to death Khaled Said, a 28 year-old Alexandria man, because he refused to show his identity card when they barged into an internet café without a warrant.

Throughout my five days in Cairo, people that I knew only via their blogs and occasional email exchanges went to a lot of trouble to make sure I had a good time, and that I saw as many sides of the city as possible. They were proud of the good and never tried to hide or excuse the bad – like the thugs, the dirt, the corruption and the sexual harassment. They were smart and articulate and honest. They were also depressed and frustrated. Many were semi-employed, unable to find full-time jobs that matched their skills and education. Some lived with their parents, even though they were approaching 30. The fear factor was always there, in the knowledge that anyone could be arrested and jailed without charge. Even though that was unlikely to happen to them, just the knowledge that they would have little recourse if it did happen – that they could just disappear if someone from state security wanted to make them disappear – was always there. Which is what happened to Khaled Said, another well-educated, middle class, under-employed man in his late 20s. Between the fear, the unemployment and the corruption, their lives seemed to be on hold.

The people I spent time with in Cairo were privileged, although not from the super-rich elite. Most of them had gone to the best schools and spoke fluent English, but they were not rich. They were internet savvy, well-informed and outward looking – much more so than Israelis, who seem increasingly to look inward. These young Egyptian bloggers had been born in a country that was once, not so long ago, the intellectual and cultural center of the Arab world; now they lived in a country that was poor, corrupt and stagnating, and they were depressed because they didn’t feel they had the power to effect change, or even to control their own lives. There was no meritocracy, no democracy and no freedom of speech. The only country that did not require Egyptian nationals to apply in advance for an entry visa was Iran. Many talked about leaving, although few knew how or to where. “I can’t think of any reason to be proud of being Arab,” said one.

Just over eighteen months later, just a few days after the revolution began, I listened as that same friend told a radio interviewer exultantly about his pride in being Egyptian. I watched video clips showing people I knew demonstrating on the streets of Cairo, clapping rhythmically and shouting, “Masr!” (Egypt), as they faced rows of black-clad, baton-wielding riot control forces. On January 25, pride suddenly became the new theme amongst the Egyptian bloggers I’d been following for more than five years. I was amazed that they had overcome all those psychological barriers – the fear, the passivity, the helplessness and the depression – and taken control of their lives, just like that. Where did they find the inspiration and the courage?

Over the following three weeks I watched – via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube and Aljazeera – as those disheartened people I’d met in Cairo went to the streets and led a popular revolution that was informed by remarkably democratic principles. They organized that revolution intelligently, and without a charismatic leader. They left the fear barrier far behind and faced down some pretty terrifying state-sponsored violence. Someone I knew and cared about was beaten and detained, and there was nothing I could do about that except lose sleep (he is fine now). And then I watched as Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak’s resignation, and I read the exultant tweets from the internet-savvy young activists in Tahrir, and that was the most amazing, exhilarating thing I ever experienced.

Even as I tweeted and facebooked the revolution obsessively from my desk in Jaffa, I mourned not being in Egypt to experience it first-hand. Two months earlier, the idea of positive change in the Middle East had seemed too remote even to contemplate. The whole region was stagnating – or, in the case of Israel, taking huge strides backward. Suddenly, everything seemed possible. Optimism was possible. This was something amazing, and I wanted to experience it and write about it.

I was not the only freelance journalist who watched the revolution from afar. It’s not news that the news business is in a financial crisis, and there was no way to put together enough commissions to pay my expenses – let alone pay for my work. Quite a few of my colleagues found themselves in the same position. I love writing and I am optimistic that it will become a means of making a decent living again soon, but for now I do my most interesting work for free. +972 Magazine is a volunteer project that we bloggers maintain with our own funds. Writing an opinion piece for the New York Times was an honor (especially when it was picked up by Andrew Sullivan on his blog, the Daily Dish), but not a paid one. The same goes for having my interview with “Ali,” a friend in Tripoli, picked up and re-posted on the Reuters site after I published it on +972 Magazine. Lots of credit, but little-to-no (mostly no) remuneration, is all too common in the world of contemporary freelance journalism.

The Egyptian revolution is far from over. There are all sorts of things going on – like the protestors’ raid on state security headquarters this past Saturday, and the ongoing Friday demonstrations at Tahrir. Mubarak may be gone, but much of the old regime is still in place; will the protesters succeed in pushing for system-wide change?

Then there’s the changing definition of the role of women, who figured so prominently in planning and leading the protests. There are the workers’ strikes, which the army has forbidden. There is the uncertain relationship between the army and the protesters. What happened to the national museum after it was damaged in late January, allegedly by thugs? How are the very poor – the ones who live on less than two dollars per day – managing these days?

I would like to spend about three weeks in Egypt, staying with friends in Cairo and reporting from there, but also going beyond the capital – to the small towns in the south, to Alexandria and Port Said and other cities. I would like to publish my reports here on my personal blog and on +972 Magazine, while I am in Egypt.

So I am going to try an experiment. I am turning directly to readers to fund the trip and pay for my work, via donations to my PayPal account. To participate in my experiment – and I hope it’s obvious that a relatively small amount, like the cost of a magazine ($2, $3 or $5), is more than welcome – just click on the ‘donate’ button below.