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Bringing down the security walls in Cairo

January 27, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Interesting times to be in government. In Egypt at least.

There have been resignations and walk-outs. There might be a military coup. First the army, now Egyptian government officials have started issuing their own communiques, hurried sub-clauses for hire-and-fire job contracts, miniature love letters dedicated to the Egyptian street.

Mohamed Ibrahim, Egypt’s interior minister, announced Tuesday he intended to bring down the security walls surrounding the building near Tahrir Square, starting with those on Nubar and Mansour.

Tearing down the walls means more than just freeing up downtown Cairo. Ibrahim says it will also tear down the “psychological barriers between the citizen and the police officer, after the ministry has announced its alignment with the Egyptian people, who took to the streets in huge masses that astounded the world.”

What symbolism.

Someone somewhere will be able to do a much better job than me – and Ibrahim too, I suspect – of assessing the psychological barriers these walls established, cutting up the heart of the city, disrupting the flow of employment and civilian life with them. But these barriers are a physical reminder of the last Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) regime, a physical reminder that police officers and army soldiers protected the SCAF regime with lethal force. Today we see a different interior ministry, yes, but a similar unwillingness (or refusal) to own up to the legacy of its predecessors.

How will the people respond? It depends on where the police stand in amongst the clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood, the army and everyone else, which many here expect could happen any time after the army’s 4.30pm stated ultimatum today. With 18 people already dead in Cairo, they sort of already have.

That said, if police batons are seen as one and the same hand as flag-waving military helicopters and the Egyptian people then maybe the people will respond positively. For now, at least.

It reminds me of a Mothers of Invention song, ‘Who Needs the Peace Corps?’ As Frank Zappa lays into the happenin’ Haight-Ashbury scene, he dryly mouthpieces the archetypal San Francisco head. “I will love everyone, I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street,” he says.

Zappa is mocking the hippies’ political failure – that they turned inwards (their holy thoughts gliding along with the help of Orientalist mysticism, lysergic acid and Nepalese hash) – when the politics of the street demanded anything but. And so they loved the police officer beating them, transcendentally of course, all the while surrounded by police brutality, racism and rampant imperialism abroad. It spread and ultimately broke the radical New Left. At least the tunes were good though?

But bear with me, there is overlap in Egypt today.

These are the most pro-authority, anti-government protests I have ever seen. These are the most pro-authority anti-government protests I can think of as I write. And yet the Egyptian army and police – in Zappa’s words – beat the shit out of civilians and not that long ago either. They beat the life out of them on Mohamed Mahmoud and at Maspero, in Tahrir Square and in streets and prisons up and down the country. But now they’re loved again.

Are Egyptians too turning inwards? Away from the revolution? Towards authority?

Given the speed of events this week, it’s too early to say.

However what’s most worrying – and perhaps most telling – about these love letters to the Egyptian street is the patriarchal language they use.

In the same statement Ibrahim said he would not resign in order to protect the lives of the Egyptian people, “who put complete faith in the police officers and the military forces to protect their safety and security.”

At least now, as mass protests continue the struggle against President Morsi and shrewd security officials rush to align themselves with the people’s demands, that might be true. Responding to those demands is fine. But blithely assuming what the people want, or even what they think, is another thing entirely. It could prove unwise if history repeats itself a third time and the Egyptian people wage another backlash against the post-revolutionary authorities.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.