Thursday, April 10, 2008

The sand of silence

Last Sunday Egypt's many malcontented voices finally rose to the surface in a nationwide protest against high food prices, low wages, and Mubarak's general mismanagement of the country. Egypt's government spends $3.1 billion annually subsidizing food prices. However, unusual weather and higher demand in China and India have made food prices skyrocket worldwide. Since unsubsidized Egyptian bread can now cost 10 to 12 times what the subsidized version costs, more people are going to government bakeries, which makes for long lines and angry consumers. Read: this article. However, contrary to the impression one might get from this NY Time's article, the entire nation did not fall into mass chaos last Sunday. The most startling element of the protest was that, for the most part, there was no visible protest at all.

In some northern regions like Mahalla al-Kobra, hundreds of people did take to the streets. However, in Tahrir Square just outside of AUC, rows and rows of policemen stood sentinel before a gaping open space. With the exception of three...yes, three...AUC students carrying signs, the policemen were unopposed. Reportedly Cairo University had a lot more activists, but most people in Cairo just protested by not going to work.

I didn't have class on Sunday, so I stayed in the dorm. But when I stepped outside, I was immediately greeted by an eerie silence. The air was thick - I could actually see a yellow tint everywhere, and it smelled stale. I then realized that we were having a sandstorm. Cairo has a few sandstorms around this time every year. I was surprised the first time I saw one, because it wasn't what I was expecting. There is no high wind blowing buckets of sand into your every orifice while you cover your face with a cloth. The sandstorms in Cairo just look like there's a lot of pollution in the air - except it's sand - and it comes with an odd smell. The sand has the same effect a snowfall would; it muffles things. That the sandstorm coincided with the day of the protest only made the lack of noise that much more conspicuous.

People are saying that this protest was seminal, not only because it was a widespread manifestation of Mubarak's low approval ratings, but also because of how it was organized. Most of it was done entirely through e-mail, text messaging and facebook. I couldn't get online for a long time on Sunday because the bandwidth was overloaded. I haven't been talking to a lot of non-AUC (read: non-privileged) Egyptians about the protest, but apparently the general sentiment is that people are happy with how the protest went. AUC was largely unaffected, but for the 20% of Egypt's population below the poverty line, it was certainly an interesting Sunday.