Letter from Cairo – LARB


“Why are we destroying our own city with our own hands?” the architect Nairy Hampikian asked last month in Magaz, an Egyptian design magazine. She was speaking of the decades of poor planning and infrastructure in Cairo under Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In the same publication, architect May al-Ibrashy wrote, “Cairo, always fast, has now become furious. Stadiums as battlegrounds… buildings as burning effigies (the list is endless but the unrivaled favorite seems to be Ministry of Interior buildings)…” Both writers may have been anticipating the urban conflict to come: in the battle for Egypt between protestors determined to be heard and a military determined to silence them, space, and who controls it, is as much the focus of the contest as anything else.

This month’s battles between military police and protesters outside the cabinet and parliament buildings, just south of Tahrir Square, are a prime example. In the early morning on Friday, December 16th, regime thugs and military police threw furniture, plates, bricks, and cement blocks onto a few hundred protesters who for three weeks had been sitting-in peacefully outside the cabinet building. The ensuing street battles were contests of space. At least thirteen people died and hundreds more were injured over the first three days, as they fought to control Qasr al-Ainy Street, a central boulevard that houses many government buildings and connects to Tahrir from the south. Like the violence of late November, when over forty protesters died fighting the Central Security Forces for control of Mohamed Mahmoud Street (one of the main arteries leading out of Tahrir Square), this latest spasm of violence was not just about freedom or human rights: it was about urban control.

In the battle of Qasr al-Ainy Street, the fight was directed against specific buildings, most of all the cabinet building from which uniformed soldiers and military police attacked protesters (one, caught on camera, even urinated on them). The buildings became symbols as well as tools of oppression, with the military attacking civilians from the rooftops. Detained protesters were dragged into the parliament, known as the People’s Assembly, where they were beaten. Rocks and Molotov cocktails were thrown both at and from the cabinet building, an adjacent government office, and the Ministry of Transportation, just up the street. Regime toughs and military police attacked from the roof of the Institut d’Égypte, a valuable national archive built after Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798.

Molotovs hit the institute — exactly who threw them is not clear — and the military allowed the building to burn, along with its vast collection of two-hundred year old books and manuscripts. Soldiers didn’t try to save the volumes of national heritage housed inside; protesters did. A photo quickly spread on Twitter of a man cradling a stack of old books rescued from the burning building, his head covered with a plastic chair to protect him from rocks thrown and bullets fired by military police. The Big Pharaoh, an Egyptian blogger, posted the photo with the message: “I just want u to look at this pic closely. Look & contemplate. Look & feel proud.” According to al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt’s largest independent daily, young men who ran into the still-burning building on Saturday to save the books were shot at and hit with rocks. “They fired at us with shotguns,” a man named Ahmed told the newspaper. “A little kid was hit with 11 pellets in the neck.” Al-Masry al-Youm reported that a man carrying books from the smoldering institute had his back broken by a rock on his way out.

A salvage operation began days later outside a state archive building along the Nile, where academics, specialists, and other volunteers sifted through the charred remains of the institute’s 192,000-volume collection. “When the government wants to protect something, they do,” Ahmed el-Bindari, one of the volunteers, told the Associated Press. “Try to reach the Interior Ministry or Defense Ministry buildings. You won’t be able to.”

Read the rest at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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